BOISE, Idaho (AP) — A giant forest fuel-reduction project in Idaho rejected by the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals is on again, and an environmental group says it violates the court’s orders and plans to stop it with another lawsuit.
The U.S. Forest Service on Friday approved the 125-square-mile project on the Payette National Forest, with work expected to start this week.
The Forest Service and the Alliance for the Wild Rockies agree that the project is the same as the one halted by the 9th Circuit Court’s ruling against the Forest Service in August 2018.
But the Forest Service said it has added wording to an environmental review to clarify technical inconsistencies and other problems that caused the appeals court to stop the project. The agency said the new approval decision Friday based on the clarified environmental review removes the process from court rulings and allows work to begin.
“Now we can implement immediately because it’s a new decision,” said Erin Phelps, a district ranger on the Payette National Forest.
Mike Garrity, executive director of Alliance for the Wild Rockies, said the project still deviates from the 2003 Payette National Forest Land and Resource Management Plan, which is the argument the group used to win in the 9th Circuit Court. That win, Garrity said, reaffirmed that national forest plans are binding.
But in its latest decision, the Forest Service “basically told the 9th Circuit they were wrong,” Garrity said. “The problem is ... they can’t overrule the court.”
The Forest Service said the Lost Creek-Boulder Creek Landscape Restoration Project includes commercial logging, prescribed burning and recreation improvements such as trail maintenance. Also planned are habitat improvements for the federally protected bull trout and northern Idaho ground squirrel.
The commercial logging can help pay for some of the other aspects, Phelps said.
But Garrity said the plan comes at the expense of wildlife habitat and recreation to increase commercial logging “and turns the rest of the project into a tree farm, and national forests aren’t supposed to be tree farms.”
The project that initially started in 2015 is backed by the Payette Forest Coalition, which intervened in the court case on the side of the Forest Service.
A U.S. District Court in Idaho ruled in favor of the Forest Service, but the 9th Circuit Court reversed that ruling. The appeals court ruled that parts of the project weren’t in line with the 2003 Payette National Forest Land and Resource Management Plan that had gone through a public environmental review process.