Sacajawea’s Bitterroot Puts Idaho Miners at 2nd Fiddle

      BOISE (CN) — In a second rebuke to the U.S. Forest Service, a federal judge Monday said it failed to sufficiently analyze whether a mining project would harm an endangered plant species in Idaho wilderness.
     U.S. District Judge Edward Lodge vacated approval of the CuMo Exploration Project in Boise National Forest and ordered the Forest Service to do the environmental analysis needed to determine whether and how much a 2014 forest fire hurt the rare perennial herb Sacajawea’s bitterroot.
     Eighty percent of the plant’s known population is in the Boise National Forest, most of it in the project area. Only about two dozen sites have been discovered.
     Lodge agreed with the three environmental groups who claimed the Forest Service relied on “obsolete pre-fire baselines and fail[ed] to reestablish new data upon which to evaluate the extent of any potential impacts on the species.”
     Without an adequate understanding of how the fire affected the health of the plant population, the Forest Service could not determine the impact of the mining project, Lodge said.
     “Knowing the Grimes Fire and fire suppression activities directly affected the area, the Forest Service nonetheless concluded the project would have no significant impact on LESA [Lewisia sacajaweana] without conducting the recommended re-evaluation,” Lodge wrote. “This is made all the more troubling by the forest service’s recognition of the rareness of the LESA plant, its location in the project area, and the increasing and notable risks to its viability.”
     The Idaho CuMo Mining Corp. wants to explore for minerals on about 2,800 acres of Forest Service land on Grimes Creek near the headwaters of the Boise River. The segment of the nearly 2.2 million-acre national forest lies about 14 miles north of Idaho City.
     CuMo wants to discover the extent of a copper deposit there. To do so, it wants to drill up to 259 holes on 137 drill pads, 1,500 to 3,000 feet deep.
     The Idaho Conservation League, Idaho Rivers United and Golden Eagle Audubon Society sued for Forest Service and CuMo in January.
     “The project site is basically a mountain, and they would be removing the mountain and replacing it with a big pit,” the environmentalists’ attorney Brian Hurlbutt told Courthouse News after the suit was filed.
     This is not the first lawsuit over the project.
     The same group of plaintiffs sued in 2011, claiming the Forest Service had not adequately analyzed the project’s impacts on groundwater.
     The environmentalists prevailed. The court found the Forest Service had studied only surface water.
     So the Forest Service did a Supplemental Environmental Analysis, and approved the project again. The plaintiffs sued again, saying the study of the impacts on groundwater were still insufficient and the science relating to Sacajawea bitterroot incomplete.
     Though Lodge agreed with the plaintiffs on the endangered plant, he denied their motion for summary judgment on the water issue, saying the Forest Service has taken the necessary “hard look” at the environmental impacts ground in the project area.
     He ordered the Forest Service to do the required studies to get a more complete picture of the Sacajawea bitterroot population.
     “The Forest Service recognizes the baseline data needs to be re-established following the 2014 Grimes Fire but instead of compiling and analyzing that data up front, the Forest Service has incorporated those NEPA [National Environmental Protection Act] steps into the project itself,” Lodge wrote. “This approach puts the cart before the horse by prematurely asking for approval of the project before the necessary baseline data and analysis are conducted. NEPA demands that the Forest Service analyze a project’s impacts before it is approved, not as part of the project itself.”
     Sacajawea bitterroot is exceedingly rare. It has been designated a sensitive species and critically imperiled, meaning it is “the highest priority rare plant species managed by the Boise National Forest,” Lodge said.
     It grows at 5,000 to 9,500 feet elevation and produces white flowers in early spring, after the snow melts, after which the plant appears to disappear. It spends most of its life in a dormant state.
     It is named for Sacajawea, a Native American who accompanied Meriwether Lewis and William Clark on their expedition to the Pacific Ocean from 1804 to 1806.
     The Forest Service says on its own website: “An Idaho native, this rare and beautiful plant occurs nowhere else in the world but central Idaho. Just over two dozen populations of Sacajawea’s bitterroot are known to exist, roughly three-fourths of them on the Boise National Forest. Scattered populations also occur on the Payette, Sawtooth, and Salmon-Challis National Forests.”

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