Judge blocks two forest projects near Grangeville

Jun. 29—A federal judge blocked a pair of large timber harvest and restoration projects on the Nez Perce-Clearwater National Forest.

U.S. District Judge Candy W. Dale at Boise sided with the Moscow-based Friends of the Clearwater environmental group in finding the End of the World and Hungry Ridge projects south and east of Grangeville fell short of standards meant to protect stands of old-growth trees.

Dale said forest officials "took liberties outside of a reasonable interpretation of the (Nez Perce National Forest) plan" when counting old-growth timber in the area. That assessment was required to ensure the agency met minimum old-growth standards in the combined project areas that straddle the ridge that separates the South Fork of the Clearwater River Basin from the Salmon River Basin.

"This is another example of the Forest Service's skewed priorities placing industrial timber production above widely shared public values associated with old-growth ecosystems, such as biological diversity, wildlife habitat, recreation, aesthetics, soil productivity, water quality and fisheries habitat," said Jeff Juel of the Friends of the Clearwater in a news release.

Dale turned away claims the projects fell short of standards meant to protect threatened species like grizzly bears, fisher and steelhead trout. But Bryan Hurlbutt, an attorney from the Boise-based environmental law firm Advocates of the West who argued the case, said those and other species will benefit.

"This is a big win for fisher, marten, goshawk, and other wildlife that depend on old growth forest," said Hurlbutt. "Stopping these misguided projects is also a big win for other at-risk species that would have been harmed by a decade of intensive logging across all types of forest, including salmon, steelhead, lynx, and grizzly bear, which have been documented on the Salmon-Clearwater Divide in recent years."

Dale's ruling Friday remanded the projects back to the agency.

"We are identifying next steps to address concerns raised in this decision regarding old growth in the project areas, so that we are able to proceed forward with these important land management projects," said Marty Mitzkus, acting supervisor of the Nez Perce-Clearwater National Forest.

The End of the World project area is about 6 miles south of Grangeville and was projected to produce about 144 million board feet of timber. The Hungry Ridge project is about 18 miles southeast of Grangeville and would have produced an estimated 177 million board feet of timber.

Both projects included prescribed burning and aimed to meet forest restoration objectives such as reducing fire danger and outbreaks of insects and disease, altering the composition of forest vegetation and work to improve water quality, such as obliterating old logging roads. The combined logging footprint would have been just shy of 26,000 acres of 40 square miles and included some large clearcuts, and the construction of more than 40 miles of temporary and permanent roads.

Barker may be contacted at ebarker@lmtribune.com or at (208) 848-2273. Follow him on Twitter @ezebarker.