BOISE, Idaho (CN) - The government's plan to salvage timber after the Johnson Bar fire ignores the threat posed to already imperiled fish species in protected Idaho rivers, environmentalists claim in a federal complaint.
With two timber auctions slated for later this month, Idaho Rivers United and Friends of the Clearwater say they need an injunction to block the Johnson Bar Fire Salvage Project.
In addition to harvesting about 34 million board-feet of timber, the project calls for about 108 miles of road work and 13 helicopter landings within, and adjacent to, a designated Wild and Scenic River corridor, according to the complaint filed Friday.
"All of the disturbance will occur on steep highly erosive soils, which drain into the Selway and Middle Fork Clearwater Rivers and their tributaries," the complaint states.
Though these watersheds are designated critical habitat for the endangered Snake River fall Chinook salmon, Snake River Basin steelhead and Columbia River bull trout, all the plaintiff conservationists accuse the government of putting economic considerations over the environment.
"There is definitely a risk to these endangered fish," Marc Shumaker, an attorney with Advocates for the West, said in an interview.
Advocates is a nonprofit law firm focused on restoring streams and watersheds, among other conservationist initiatives, according to the firm's website.
"How bad the risk is, we don't know because they haven't analyzed the impacts of the project very well in their EIS," Shumaker added, abbreviating environmental impact statement.
The project targets more than 2,000 acres of the pristine 2.2 million-acre Nez Perce National Forest in north central Idaho, where fires in 2014 and 2015 charred a total of about 60,000 acres.
Though regulators approved the project in response to the Johnson Bar fire of late 2014, the environmentalists note that the area lost more than three times the acreage last year when adjacent land in the Selway River corridor burned.
Yet a final environmental impact statement (FEIS) and record of decision (ROD) that forest supervisor Cheryl Probert signed on Feb. 17, 2016, "provide only a perfunctory analysis of these massive new fires to summarily conclude they will not alter the impacts of the project," the complaint states.
"They totally missed the mark and down played the cummulative impacts of the fires," Shumaker said.
Regulators projecting that the "massive" clear-cutting activities will result in sedimentation impacts to the Selway River of 10,000 to 20,000 cubic yards per square mile, according to the complaint.
"The Forest Service defendants have avowedly and single-mindedly pushed this project forward for the purpose of recovering the value of 'dead trees' to support the local economy, despite the harms it threatens to the Wild and Scenic River corridor, imperiled fish, soils, water quality and other environmental values," the 36-page complaint states. "By placing the primary emphasis of the project on economic considerations and failing to consider any non-commercial management alternatives, the Forest Service defendants have violated their statutory duties under Sections 10(a) and 12 of Wild and Scenic Rivers Act to manage the Middle Fork Clearwater and Selway River corridor to protect Wild and Scenic values."
Conservationists say another misstep that helped the project involves reliance on an outdated 1969 River Plan that does not contain the "comprehensive river protections" required by amendments made to the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act in 1986. The Forest Service had 10 years from the date of the amendments to update its plan, but has yet to do so, according to the complaint.
While outdated, the plan sill prohibits commercial timber harvesting, a point the Forest Service seems to have overlooked, the conservationists say.
"Under the River Plan, timber harvest is allowed only for specific purposes when other management alternatives are impractical," the complaint states.
Idaho Rivers and Friends say the FEIS and ROD themselves are contradictory.
With forest supervisor Probert named as a defendant, along with the U.S. Forest Service, NOAA Fisheries and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the plaintiffs allege violations of the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act, the National Forest Management Act, the National Environmental Policy Act, the Endangered Species Act and the Administrative Procedures Act.
The plaintiffs want the Forest Service to adopt a comprehensive river management plan for the Selway, Lochsa and Middle Fork Clearwater Rivers, as obligated under the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act.
In addition to attorney Shumaker, the plaintiffs are represented by Laurence Lucas with Advocates for the West, and by Deborah Ferguson of Ferguson and Durham.
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