Court rules that the Forest Service violated federal environmental laws by changing maps and approving logging
By Bob Berwyn
SUMMIT COUNTY — Lynx in the northern Rockies got a boost from a federal court this week, as U.S. District Court Candy Dale halted a large lodgepole pine thinning project in the Caribou-Targhee National Forest, on the western border of Yellowstone National Park.
Judge Dale ruled that the Forest Service violated federal environmental laws by changing forest maps without adequate environmental reviews. The agency will have to go back to the drawing board and do more studies to disclose how the thinning will affect endangered lynx.
At issue are large swaths of lodgepole pine that were clearcut in the 1970s. The trees are now reaching an age when they provide good habitat for snowshoe hares, the primary prey for lynx.
Young lodgepoles provide both cover and food for the hares and other rabbits, according to Sara Johnson, a former wildlife biologist for the Targhee National Forest who worked in the area when the clearcutting was done in the 1970s.
“They need the dense plantations in the winter to survive from the predator … in the winter, that’s the only way the snowshoe hares can survive. That’s the big reason these plantations are so important,” Johnson said.
“The Canada lynx is listed as a threatened species under the Endangered Species Act and lynx -suitable habitat is subject to various restrictions, including a prohibition on pre-commercial thinning of trees,”said Johnson, who is now the director of the Native Ecosystems Council, one of the groups that sued to halt the logging.
The Forest Service mapped the area as potential lynx habitat, but in 2005 suddenly revised those maps without any public input, removing about 400,000 acres of land from areas subject to protective measures.
In 2009, the forest approved a 7.000-acre thinning project in the area under an environmental assessment, concluding that the work wouldn’t have significant environmental impacts. Logging started on about 1,350 acres the following year. Another 2,400 acres of logging was slated to start in 2011, but conservation groups challenged the project before the agency started work that summer.
The lawsuit claimed the project would harm hare habitat and by extension lynx, and also faulted the Forest Service for changing the maps without any environmental studies.
Johnson said the Forest Service and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service decided to make the changes after a field trip to the area.
“They went out and looked at all those areas … but they didn’t care about the lynx, their solution was to remap so they could go ahead and thin it,” she said. “They originally mapped it as lynx habitat, then when the lynx conservation guidelines came out, the remapped it. They also did some really crazy science, saying the area wouldn’t grow to climate fir forest … the Forest Service did this rinky-dink analysis and that was their basis for eliminating it as lynx habitat,” she said.
“In essence, the Court stopped the project because the Forest Service simply changed a map in 2005 to eliminate protective restrictions for lynx on 400,000 acres of the Caribou-Targhee National Forest without following the requirements of the National Environmental Policy Act and the Endangered Species Act,” said Mike Garrity, executive director of the Alliance for the Wild Rockies.
In her Order, Judge Dale’s wrote:
“[T]he Court finds that the Forest Service’s failure to prepare an Environmental Impact Statement for a decision that ultimately opened approximately 400,000 acres of previously protected land to precommercial thinning violated NEPA. Moreover, like a house of cards built on an unsound foundation, because the 2005 map was not analyzed under NEPA, the agency’s analysis under the ESA – which is based upon the validity of the 2005 map – cannot withstand judicial review.”
“There can be no dispute that the Project itself is altering the physical landscape by removing tress on land that was previously subject to restrictions for the benefit of a protected species under the ESA … In the absence of a valid FONSI and biological assessment, the Court fails to grasp how the Project can continue.”
“The Split Creek proposal authorizes extensive pre-commercial thinning in occupied lynx habitat and in snowshoe hare habitat,” Johnson said. “The logging would have driven out snowshoe hare, which are the primary prey of lynx and the Forest Service’s own studies show that lynx avoid forests that have been thinned.
The Forest Service and the Fish and Wildlife Service are required by the Endangered Species Act to try and recover lynx populations, but logging 7,000 acres of critical lynx habitat does just the opposite,” she concluded.
Filed under: biodiversity, endangered species, Environment, Forest health, forests, public lands, US Forest Service Tagged: | Canada lynx, Caribou-Targhee National Forest, endangered species, endangered species act, National Environmental Policy Act, U.S. Forest Service, United States Fish and Wildlife Service