PORTLAND, Ore. (CN) – Oregon environmentalists continued their battle Monday against a project that they might be expected to support – mountain biking trails that would put the grassy slopes around Timberline Lodge on Mount Hood to work in the summer.
The company that runs the historic Timberline Lodge – site of filming for the 1980 Jack Nicholson thriller “The Shining” – applied for a permit to build 17 acres of downhill-only mountain bike trails that would be accessed in summer using its network of ski lifts. The Forest Service approved a 30-year permit.
In 2013, four environmental advocacy groups – Bark, Friends of Mount Hood, Northwest Environmental Defense Center and The Sierra Club – sued the U.S. Forest Service and three forest rangers, claiming the government ignored studies showing the trails would harm two imperiled species: western bumblebees and the Columbia River steelhead trout.
Clearing and grooming 12 acres of planned trails would cause runoff from rain and melting snow that would deposit gill-clogging sediment into a local stream inhabited by threatened steelhead, the groups say.
And in 2014, the Forest Service designated western bumblebees as a sensitive species. The proposed project area is in a known bumblebee nesting area, according to Forest Service surveys. But the government refused to reconsider its plans, despite warnings from scientists that the trails could also encourage people to trample bumblebee queens and nesting areas.
Ralph Bloemers, attorney for the environmental groups, told U.S. District Judge Ann Aiken on Monday that the Forest Service ignored new science that proved it didn’t consider in its first plan.
After the bee was listed, the Forest Service declined to make any changes to the plan, claiming that its mitigation efforts would outweigh any potential fatalities, and that the project would harm only “individual bees,” not the population as a whole.
Bloemers said that response was inadequate under the law.
“This isn’t a question of whether these species will be viable after the project is completed,” Bloemers said. “It’s whether they will be impacted in a way that’s not considered in the 2012 biological opinion. And it’s clear that they will.”
Arguing for the government, U.S. Attorney Sean Martin said that at some point the government must make a decision, despite the constant flow of new information.
“There’s always going to be new information,” Martin said. “You really have to leave it to an agency’s experts to weigh these new facts or else nothing is ever going to get done.”
Judge Aiken seemed skeptical.
“The question is, are we maintaining the integrity of the science?” Aiken asked. “As the world changes, we have to make sure that there are checks and balances with the science, that there is proper review to make sure that an agency determination was warranted and the public has to have a chance to weigh in.”
Martin argued the last three years of new studies did not produce anything that questioned the agency’s logic in approving the bike trails.
“There is a disagreement about the significance of the effects,” Martin said. “But that’s all it is – a disagreement. Nothing has changed here that would warrant reconsideration. Of course if you have a bike park there’s going to be long-term sediment. But when you look at the population of steelhead that would be affected, it’s a very small slice of a very small population.”
“There are competing uses in the forest, aren’t there?” Aiken asked. “And competing needs. And that’s what this case is about, isn’t it?”
“Just be careful what you wish for,” Aiken said. “Because what if this was an ATV park? You have to balance your approach when you’re trying to introduce new sources of revenue in the forest.”
Aiken said she would issue a ruling by mid-December.
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