Main object is to stop new timber sales
Logging planned for the Libby and Buttermilk creek areas would harm endangered fish, mammals and birds and violate environmental laws and the U.S. Forest Service’s own land-management plans, according to a lawsuit filed by a conservation group to stop the 50,000-acre Mission Restoration Project.
The lawsuit, filed by the Alliance for the Wild Rockies, asks the Forest Service to do an environmental impact statement (EIS), a detailed review that would fully analyze the impacts of logging on wildlife, fish and plants. The lawsuit was filed Oct. 16 in the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Washington.
The Forest Service hasn’t responded to the alliance’s complaint yet.
The main purpose of the suit is to stop the Forest Service from conducting a timber sale, Mike Garrity, executive director of the alliance, said. “If they do an EIS, they would realize they’re not doing it properly,” he said in an interview this week.
“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.”
—Mike Garrity, executive director of the Alliance for the Wild Rockies
An EIS must look at all cumulative impacts of a proposal. This would include impacts on endangered species and from cattle grazing and recent wildfires, Garrity said.
The lawsuit alleges that logging would damage soils and add sediment to Libby and Buttermilk creeks and their tributaries. Sediment decreases oxygen and smothers eggs. Removing trees would raise water temperatures, creating inhospitable conditions for endangered and threatened salmon. Both creeks are home to endangered spring Chinook, and to steelhead and bull trout, which are listed as threatened.
In addition to fish, the project area contains critical winter range and migration corridors for deer. It’s part of the territory of the Lookout wolf pack, and encompasses habitat for grizzly bears, Canada lynx and wolverine. The area provides thousands of acres of nesting and foraging habitat for the endangered Northern spotted owl, according to the lawsuit.
The court filing contends that the Forest Service has never conducted an analysis of bull trout habitat in the Okanogan-Wenatchee National Forest. Because bull trout need colder water than steelhead and spring Chinook, ensuring appropriate conditions for bull trout would also protect the other salmonids, it says.
While the project design specifies logging during the winter to minimize soil disruption, winter is a key time of year for mule deer, which could be displaced by the heavy machinery, according to the lawsuit.
The lawsuit alleges that the Forest Service violated two federal laws in pursuing the Mission project. It violated the National Environmental Policy Act because the agency didn’t do a full environmental review, and the National Forest and Management Act because it ignored its own land-management rules.
The alliance disputes the Forest Service’s claims about the forest-health goals of the Mission project. “Portraying the proposal as ‘restoration’ is simply dishonest,” Garrity said in a press release. “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.”
The plaintiffs voiced the same concerns in comments to the Forest Service during the two-year review period for the Mission project. They filed the lawsuit because they’d exhausted their administrative options, Garrity said.
The Mission project has been controversial since it was first proposed in 2016. Some area residents hailed the use of a new, collaborative strategy, but others, including the Libby Creek Watershed Association, vigorously opposed the plans, saying there is no science showing benefits from the proposed treatments.
Individual members of the Libby Creek group are also members of the Alliance for the Wild Rockies, but the Libby Creek association is not involved in the lawsuit, Garrity said.
No guarantee of mitigations
The Mission project includes mitigations to protect fish habitat and compensate for the effects of logging, including replacing culverts and bridges and decommissioning roads once the project is completed. But there is no guarantee that there will be money to pay for these mitigations, according to the lawsuit.
“Most significant adverse environmental impacts from the Project would occur immediately, while most impacts that the Forest Service describes as beneficial would occur later, if at all, when funding becomes available,” according to the lawsuit.
“It’s common for the Forest Service to say they will cause damage but mitigate it with restoration, but there’s no money, so it’s never done,” Garrity said this week.
As required by the federal Endangered Species Act (ESA), the alliance also filed a 60-day notice with the Forest Service outlining its allegations that the agency failed to protect the endangered species in the area. The Oct. 21 notification gives the Forest Service time to amend the Mission project design to protect endangered species and their habitat. If the Forest Service doesn’t alter the project adequately, the alliance will revise the lawsuit to include violations of the ESA, Garrity said.
Mission Project history
The Mission Restoration Project encompasses approximately 50,200 acres within the Twisp River and Lower Methow River watersheds. About one-fifth of the total area would be treated with commercial and non-commercial thinning and prescribed burning over 15 years.
Since it was proposed in 2016, the project generated more than 900 comments. Last year, the forest supervisor issued a final decision and a finding of no significant impact.
The project design was based on a new restoration strategy developed in 2012 for the Okanogan-Wenatchee National Forest. The Mission project is the first to implement the strategy, which calls for treating large landscapes with the goal of returning dry forests to conditions that make them better able to survive wildfire, insects, disease and climate change. It emphasizes an integrated approach that considers vegetation, wildlife, road management and habitat, according to the Forest Service.
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 Forest Service put the Mission project timber sale out for bids in 2018 and 2019, but it drew no responses.