COEUR D’ ALENE, Idaho (CN) — The U.S. Forest Service’s conclusion that post-fire logging projects in northern Idaho do not threaten animals and their habitat is full of holes, environmentalists say in Federal Court.
The Alliance for the Wild Rockies sued the Forest Service on Tuesday, challenging its approval of the Idaho Panhandle National Forest Tower Fire Salvage and Reforestation Project, and the Grizzly Fire Salvage and Restoration Project.
The Alliance says that burned forests provide important food and nesting resources.
But the Forest Service says on its website that both logging projects “protect the health and safety of the public by removing hazardous burned trees along trails and roads, recover the remaining economic value of forest products in a timely manner to contribute to employment and income in local communities, while restoring portions of the landscape.”
The Alliance has a procedural beef too, claiming the Forest Service did an end run around the law by declaring an “Emergency Situation Determination” that eliminated the 90-day administrative review process, and significantly limited public participation by failing to provide enough information for “meaningful and useful” public comment.
“Defendants failed to provide a public comment period for the Project Environmental Assessments, and failed to provide an administrative objection process for the projects,” according to a 52-page federal complaint. “Defendants did not provide a comment or objection period for the Decision Memos authorizing the Emergency Situation Determinations.”
The Alliance seeks judicial review of the “authorizations, analyses, and lack thereof related to and regarding [the projects’] Environmental Assessments and Decision Notices/Findings of No Significant Impact, as well as the USFS Washington Office Decision Memos authorizing ‘Emergency Situation Determinations’ for both projects.”
The Forest Service contests that too, saying on its website that the projects “had extensive public involvement” which “helped develop the proposed action[s] and inform the decision.”
“These efforts included discussions with tribes, local, state and county government, general public, local collaborative groups, and timber industry representatives.”
The Tower project includes dead and dying tree salvage on about 1,800 acres, removal of hazardous trees on 1,335 acres along 52 miles of road, and 3,496 acres of reforestation.
Projected revenue from the ensuing timber sale comes to more than $4.2 million, or almost $3 million after costs, according to Alliance.
The Grizzly project is similar in scope and includes tree-planting on 1,873 acres, resulting in net revenue of approximately $1.1 million.
Alliance says the Forest Service’s own scientists concede that while post-fire logging serves, in part, to reduce future fires, it also disturbs natural processes.
“Unfortunately, salvage harvesting activities undermine the ecosystem benefits associated with fire,” according to Richard Hutto, a Forest Service research and development scientist. “For example, post-fire salvage logging removes dead, dying or weakened trees, but those are precisely the resources that provide nest sites and an abundance of food in the form of beetle larvae and bark surface insects.”
In a 2013 open letter to Congress, some 250 scientists concurred that “(t)hough it may seem at first glance that a post-fire landscape is a catastrophe ecologically, numerous scientific studies tell us that even in patches where forest fires burned most intensely, the resulting post-fire community is one of the most ecologically important and bio-diverse habitat types in western conifer forests.”
A spokesperson for the Forest Service could not be reached Wednesday afternoon.
The Alliance’s attorney, Rebecca Smith with the Public Interest Defense Center in Missoula, Mont., did not immediately return a phone call seeking comment.
The plaintiffs say Forest Service violated the National Environmental Policy Act, the National Forest Management Act, the Appeals Reform Act, the Consolidated Appropriations Act and the Administrative Procedures Act.
They seek judicial review, declaratory judgment and an injunction, costs, expenses for expert witnesses and attorneys’ fees, under the Equal Access to Justice Act.
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