USFS disputes need for environmental impact statement
Lawyers for the U.S. Forest Service and the Alliance for the Wild Rockies made their cases in U.S. District Court on Tuesday (Nov. 10) as to whether the Forest Service had adequately analyzed the potential for the Mission Restoration Project to harm endangered fish and habitat for deer and grizzly bears.
The Montana-based alliance, which filed the lawsuit against the Forest Service last year, contends that the agency failed to look explicitly at the environmental impacts of logging, but instead combined them with the effects of restoration proposed in the project.
Forest Service attorney Vanessa Waldref countered that the alliance hadn’t shown that the agency hadn’t fulfilled its obligations under federal laws intended to protect the environment and enhance habitat for endangered species. She asked Judge Salvador Mendoza Jr. to dismiss the entire lawsuit.
The alliance argues that the Mission Project is complex enough that the Forest Service should be ordered to do a detailed environmental impact statement to understand its impacts. The organization also asked the court to block the agency from carrying out the project.
Waldref specifically challenged the alliance’s claim that the agency was required to consult with the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service about the chance that roads in the 50,200-acre Mission Project could make it less likely that grizzly bears would recover in the area.
The alliance contended that because new information has emerged since 1989 (when the agencies consulted on the Okanogan National Forest Plan), the Forest Service must initiate a new consultation about potential impacts on grizzlies.
The impact of roads on grizzlies has been known for a long time and, since there are no known grizzlies in the area, there’s nothing new to discuss, Waldref said. “Roads can only affect grizzlies if grizzlies are there,” she said.
The land in the Mission Project proposal is part of the North Cascades Recovery Zone for grizzlies, which requires that the land be managed for the bears, alliance attorney Kristine Akland said. Consultation is required when a species may be present — it’s not necessary to know if the animals are actually present, she said.
Moreover, wildlife agencies have determined that the grizzly population in the North Cascades is so small that there’s a significant risk that the bears could be completely extirpated. Roads present an imminent threat, Akland said.
The fact that a proposed plan to reintroduce grizzlies to the North Cascades was recently shelved doesn’t change the requirement for the agencies to consult about the effects of the Mission Project, Akland said.
Waldref said the Mission Project incorporates the restoration of streams and the forest to help support endangered species. Restoration and mitigation are directly incorporated into the logging proposals, she said.
While there is the potential for heavy equipment to compact soils and cause sediment run-off in creeks, the project prescribes mitigation strategies, such as placing mats under equipment to protect the soils, Waldref said. If sediment gets into streams, it could smother gravel where endangered salmon lay eggs, the alliance said.
But alliance attorney Claudia Newman said that the Forest Service hadn’t differentiated between the impact of logging and the mitigations intended to protect the environment. Because the Forest Service presented only averages of how much of the area would suffer soil compaction — on more than 200 units — there’s no way to know the impact on any one unit, Newman said. “If you average it, you erase the problem,” she said.
The Mission Project has two components — logging/road building and restoration — and the components need to be analyzed separately, Newman said.
Moreover, Newman said the Mission Project environmental assessment specifically says that there is no guarantee of funding to pay for all the restoration. Waldref said funding is built into the assessment.
The Mission Project was designed by the North Central Washington Forest Health Collaborative, which includes the Forest Service, conservation groups and the timber industry. The collaborative works toward a consensus-based approach to forest restoration.
Earlier this year, several conservation groups filed briefs in court supporting the Forest Service, saying the project uses science to identify badly degraded areas and then restore ecological resilience. The alliance contends the project favors commercial timber logging, not critical wildlife habitat, and would turn the forest into a tree farm.
Mendoza said he would take time to review the record in the case, so it could be some time before he issues a decision.