Montana environmental group files lawsuit
More than a year after the U.S. Forest Service approved the massive Mission Restoration Project in the lower Methow Valley, a Montana-based environmental organization is challenging the project in court.
According to a press release, the Alliance for the Wild Rockies has filed a lawsuit in U.S. District Court for Eastern Washington, asking the court to stop the Forest Service from implementing the project and to find that the Forest Service violated the National Environmental Policy Act, the Administrative Procedure Act, and the National Forest Management Act. The suit asks that final approval of the project be suspended “until such time as defendants demonstrate to this court that they have adequately complied with the law.”
According to the 22-page suit, the Alliance for the Wild Rockies is a Missoula-based nonprofit that is “dedicated to the protection and preservation of the native biodiversity of the Northern Rockies bioregion.” The Alliance has more than 2,000 members, according to the suit, some of whom live in Washington state.
The suit challenges many of the assumptions and conclusions the Forest Service reached in approving the project.
Alliance Executive Director Mike Garrity said in the press release that “Portraying the proposal as ‘restoration’ is simply dishonest. What this project is really all about is turning national forests owned by all Americans into tree farms for timber production instead of restoring habitat for threatened species.”
“One of the touted ‘restoration’ benefits, repeated dozens of times in the Environmental Assessment, is to increase the growth rate of the remaining trees,” Garrity said in the release.
“Yet we find no plan that designates retention of any specified number of large trees across a wide landscape for an extended period of time into the future. It’s not in the Environmental Assessment, it’s not in the Forest Plan for the Okanogan National Forest, and it’s not in the 2012 Okanogan-Wenatchee National Forest Restoration Strategy. Even the non-commercial treatments are tailored to maximize wood production.”
“The Forest Service has decided to move forward with a plan to conduct extensive logging, burning, and road building in pristine forested watersheds,” said the Alliance’s attorney Claudia Newman, of Seattle-based Bricklin & Newman, a firm familiar to many Methow Valley residents for its involvement in high-profile environmental issues such as the so-called “hanging hut” on Flagg Mountain near Mazama. “But these forests and watersheds are the last refuge for a wide variety of endangered and threatened fish and wildlife, and the agency failed to adequately address the significant and adverse environmental impacts of its decision.”
Garrity added, “The Forest Service failed to adequately and fully address the Project’s impact on the Northern Spotted Owl … The Project will have a negative impact on this already declining species because it will remove and/or degrade and/or downgrade important nesting, roosting and foraging habitat as well as dispersal habitat.” The release also asserts that the Project does not adequately assess potential impacts on the grizzly bear population in the North Cascades.
The Mission Restoration Project encompasses commercial and non-commercial thinning, prescribed burning, soil treatments and changes to Forest Service roads on 10,022 acres in the Libby Creek and Buttermilk Creek drainages. The primary goals of the project are to improve forest health and help forests better survive disturbances including wildfire and climate change.
The project has a 15-year timeframe and will take place across a landscape of 50,200 acres, with about one-fifth of the total area treated with thinning and prescribed burning.
The project moved through environmental analysis and public beginning in April 2016, generating more than 900 comments. In July 2018, Okanogan-Wenatchee National Forest Supervisor Mike Williams issued a final decision and a “Finding of No Significant Impact” for the project.
Commercial thinning is planned to take place on 1,853 acres over a three- to five-year period, and non-commercial thinning is planned on about 8,300 acres over 10 to 15 years, according to the Environmental Assessment (EA) prepared for the project.
Of the total 50,200 acres in the project area, about 23,000 are considered to be in the wildlife-urban interface (WUI), where forest lands abut residential areas. Almost 30 percent of that WUI area, approximately 6,800 acres, is within thinning and prescribed fire treatment units, the Forest Service said earlier.
In addition to thinning and prescribed burning, the Mission Project includes actions focused on improving aquatic ecosystems in the Libby and Buttermilk watersheds. The project assessment calls for treating compacted soil on 468 acres; replacing 23 culverts, including eight that are barriers to fish passage; enhancing beaver habitat in eight locations; replacing a bridge across West Fork Buttermilk Creek; restoring woody debris in some streams to improve fish habitat; and installing rock armoring or fords at 10 stream crossings.
Another primary component of the Mission Project is road improvements, including decommissioning 34.28 miles of the total 134.7 miles of roads within the project area. After the project is completed, 66.1 miles of roads will remain open, which includes 15.4 roads that are closed except for administrative access.
Williams’ final decision maintained a previous decision issued by now-retired Methow Valley District Ranger Mike Liu, which selected Alternative 2, one of three options (including no action) outlined in the Mission Project EA.
The first commercial timber sale for the project was expected to entail harvest of 6 million board feet of timber in the Libby Creek drainage.
The design of the Mission Restoration Project is based on the Okanogan-Wenatchee National Forest Restoration Strategy, developed in 2012. The Mission Project is the first to implement the strategy, which calls for treating large landscapes with the goal of returning dry forests like those around the Methow Valley to conditions that make them better able to survive wildfire, insects, disease and climate change.
The strategy emphasizes an integrated approach to restoration that considers vegetation, wildlife, hydrology, road management and habitat across large watershed areas.
“Past management practices, including fire suppression, changed forest vegetation structure,” resulting in “densely stocked stands … arranged in a more continuous or unbroken pattern across the project area compared to historical conditions,” Williams wrote in his decision. Those changes have made forests more vulnerable to fire, insects and disease “associated with a warmer, drier climate,” he said.
To plan the Mission Project, the Methow Valley Ranger District partnered with the North Central Washington Forest Health Collaborative, which represents diverse groups with interests in forests, including tribes, environmental organizations and timber companies. The collaborative hired an outside forestry consultant from the University of Washington to develop specific prescriptions — to the level of single trees and stands of trees — for treatments that consider historical conditions and incorporate anticipated impacts of climate change on the future health of the forests.
Proponents of the Mission Project and the underlying restoration strategy have described it as a shift from the Forest Service’s past model of timber extraction to one of restoration, guided by science.
Plans for forest restoration have been welcomed by some people living in or near the Mission Project area, including residents living near Buttermilk Creek off Twisp River Road, who asked that forests adjacent to their neighborhood be included in the project area.
Some residents, however, have been skeptical of the project since it was introduced, saying the underlying goal is harvesting timber and the Forest Service has overstated the project’s ability to protect forests against extreme fires. Opponents have also questioned whether the project can stop the progression of wildfire or reduce the impacts.
The project record and decision notice are available at go.usa.gov/xUVqq.