by The Associated Press
BOISE — A federal judge has stopped two timber sales in eastern Idaho’s Targhee National Forest after determining the Forest Service doctored data to show the area had more old growth trees than may actually be standing in the region just west of Yellowstone National Park.
U.S. District Judge B. Lynn Winmill in Pocatello ruled in favor of environmental groups that sued the forest in 2004, claiming the Targhee’s long-range management plan failed to preserve old growth habitat and the wildlife species that rely on it, such as grizzlies, goshawks and gray owls. Federal law requires national forests to maintain viable wildlife populations.
Winmill stopped short of granting the groups’ request for a blanket injunction halting all further logging in the Targhee, but he did enjoin the Forest Service from proceeding with the 500-acre McGarry Salvage Timber Project near Dubois and the 2,693-acre Big Bend Ridge Vegetation Management Project near Ashton. The Forest Service said there were no old growth stands, snags or downed trees in either of the proposed sales.
In an order the parties received Thursday, Winmill wrote that a 1996 inventory of old growth habitat ignored findings of an agency study two years earlier that had concluded there was little old growth left in the forest — the scene of the largest clear-cut timber sale in Forest Service history for the lower 48 states in 1960.
The 1996 study’s finding of adequate old growth was used in approving the timber sales, but Winmill found the Forest Service made statistical errors, didn’t measure downed dead trees, and arbitrarily added an extra inch to the measured diameter of trees surveyed to help inflate the calculations for old growth inventory.
“In other words, the Forest Service manipulated the data to reach a desired result,” Winmill wrote.
Although the ruling only applies to the two logging projects, environmentalists said the decision means national forests that cannot document adequate old growth inventory must protect all trees — young and old — from logging.
“If they don’t have adequate old growth inventories then they can’t go out and log areas even if they claim there is no old growth in those areas,” said Michael Garrity, director of the Alliance for the Wild Rockies in Helena, Mont. “This will effectively stop a lot of logging.”
The Alliance joined with the Native Ecosystems Council and The Ecology Center, also both based in Montana, to sue the forest.
Targhee officials have not decided whether they will try to re-inventory the forest’s old growth in order to proceed with the sales.
“We have not had a chance to review the decision,” said Carol Lyle, acting forest supervisor in Idaho Falls.
The McGarry project was to harvest 3.5 million board feet of dead and dying timber infested with mountain pine beetles. The Big Bend Ridge project was to commercially thin green Douglas fir stands and stimulate new growth of aspen trees by harvesting 9.1 million board feet. Only the McGarry sale was put out for bid and no contract was awarded due to the lawsuit, said Ashton Ranger District Forester Tom Silvey.