by John Miller
The U.S. Forest Service settled a lawsuit filed by environmentalists fighting a central Idaho timber sale by agreeing to scale back logging that was meant to reduce fuels near the town of Salmon.
In May, the Missoula, Montana-based Alliance for the Wild Rockies won an order from U.S. District Court Judge Edward Lodge to halt the Salmon-Challis National Forest’s 1,486-acre Moose Creek timber sale, which had been approved in 2006.
According to a pact signed this week by both sides that resolves the litigation, work will now be limited to timber cutting in several areas that a local logger had purchased before the lawsuit was filed in 2007.
The Salmon-Challis National Forest also agreed to stop logging old growth stands greater than 80 acres and apply heightened scrutiny to future commercial logging – at least until it updates the Land and Resource Management Plan it uses to manage its 4.3 million acre territory. The agency also must pay the environmental group’s $23,000 legal bill.
In its lawsuit, the Alliance argued the Moose Creek project, which could have resulted in nine million board feet of lumber, would have allowed clearcuts on old-growth forests home to species such as boreal owls and northern goshawks. Both are considered sensitive species in the northern Rocky Mountains requiring special attention when decisions are made about the forests where they live.
“The Forest Service…agreed to protect old growth forests throughout the Salmon National Forest and old growth dependent species instead of pressing ahead on clearcutting,” said Michael Garrity, the group’s executive director. “This is an important step in stopping the decline in these species and keeping them off the Endangered Species list.”
When the environmental group sued just over a year ago, it contended Salmon-Challis National Forest supervisor William Wood violated federal environmental laws by failing to scrutinize whether the Moose Creek sale would negatively affect species such as the owls and goshawks, as well as fishers, wolverines, three-toed woodpeckers, and great gray owls.
Among other things, the group argued Wood wasn’t meeting the Forest Service’s own requirement to maintain at least 10 percent old growth trees outside wilderness areas to help dependent species. That amounted to at least 71,879 acres.
On May 18, Judge Lodge sided with the Alliance for the Wild Rockies and told loggers to halt work at Moose Creek, located within just a few miles of Salmon.
“At most, the Salmon National Forest has 69,880 acres of verified old growth or of stands capable of being managed for old growth characteristics, significantly short of the 10 percent requirement,” Lodge wrote. “The court believes that the record presents serious questions as to whether the Salmon National Forest’s implementation of the old growth standard is currently in compliance.”
Neither Wood nor Salmon-Challis National Forest spokesman Kent Fuellenbach returned phone calls Saturday afternoon seeking comment. According to the settlement, one reason why the sides reached the pact was that further litigation would waste taxpayer money.