(CN) – Nine U.S. Forest Service-approved timber sale and restoration projects in Montana’s Kootenai National Forest meet federal environmental standards, the 9th Circuit ruled.
WildWest Institute, along with The Ecology Center, claimed that the Forest Service’s management practices suffered from a “chronic failure” to maintain habitat health and species viability in the 2.2 million acre forest in northwest Montana. But there is no evidence that the service’s management practices have harmed the area, Judge Richard Tallman wrote, and in some cases they have led to improved watersheds.
The service conducted all requisite environmental reviews for the logging projects, including studying cumulative impacts on water quality and fish, while WildWest failed to link forest management practices to the disputed projects, the federal appeals court in San Francisco ruled.
In its filing, WildWest claimed the projects threatened the viability of pileated woodpeckers, a North American bird used as a barometer to track the impact of projects on other old-growth dependent species. WildWest said there had to be 554 pairs to meet viability standards, but the forest supports a range of 335 to 1384 pairs, the ruling states, and is still viable at as low as 134 breeding pairs. The forest is currently home to 425 pairs.
The forest plan also requires 10 percent of wildlife habitat below 5,500 feet in the forest to be old growth conditions. WildWest asserted that this percentage had to be higher to ensure species viability, citing a study putting the number at 20 to 50 percent, and said that the service illegally counted replacement old growth as part of the mandatory 10 percent.
But the court found that the service included replacement old growth when it set the initial standard during project approval in 2004 and 2005, and all nine projects met the requirement. Even without counting replacement old growth, the projects were above the 10 percent standard, according to a 2003-2004 study.
WildWest also complained that tree stands of less than 50 acres should not contribute to the old-growth number, terms they drew from old-growth guidelines within the forest plan. But the provision is not a mandatory standard, the appeals court ruled, only a suggested practice.
The three-judge panel affirmed the district court’s judgment in favor of the government, finding no violations of the National Forest Management Act, the National Environmental Policy Act or forest management policy.