In Boise National Forest, Environmental Groups Sue to Protect Endangered Species 

Two US Forest Service projects may damage critical habitat for endangered bull trout

click image - Trinity Mountain overlooks the Boise National Forest Rainbow Basin, just one month before the Pioneer Fire. -  - AIRMAN 1ST CLASS CONNOR J. MARTH, 366TH FIGHTER WING PUBLIC AFFAIRS
  • Airman 1st Class Connor J. Marth, 366th Fighter Wing Public Affairs
  • Trinity Mountain overlooks the Boise National Forest Rainbow Basin, just one month before the Pioneer Fire.

From July to November of 2016, the Pioneer Fire raged through Boise National Forest, leaving more than 188,000 acres burned and a legacy as one of the most expensive wildfires in the American West. Nearly a year later, the BNF is still vulnerable and deep in recovery, and two US Forest Service projects—the

North and South Pioneer Fire Salvage and Restoration Projects

, which aim to salvage and sell hazard and non-hazard trees, as well as plant new seedlings—have come under fire from environmental groups as violations of the Endangered Species Act.

Three conservation groups, WildLands Defense, Alliance for the Wild Rockies and the Ecosystem Council, filed a joint suit against the Forest Service, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the BNF Supervisor and the Forest Service Chief Sept. 29, claiming the post-fire logging projects violate Section 7 of the Endangered Species Act. In an official complaint, the plaintiffs argue federal agencies did not follow established procedure to ensure the endangered bull trout population wouldn’t be negatively impacted by logging.

“Two hundred and ninety miles of road maintenance, 10 new miles of roads, and the removal of ground-stabilizing trees in a post-burn landscape creates a high likelihood of sedimentation impacts in the critical habitat of bull trout,” said Brian Ertz, attorney for the plaintiffs, who added that sediments washed into streams could suffocate fish eggs, destroy insect habitat and fill the inlets and pools where trout take shelter. “It doesn’t pass the smell test in terms of the science. They’re ignoring the impact to bull trout because they want to get that timber out and get it sold.”

The projects are already underway due to two Forest Service Emergency Situation Determinations (ESDs), which Ertz said were made hastily, without taking into account “the best scientific and commercial data available” required by the Endangered Species Act. Although the Forest Service has promised to leave 240-foot buffer zones around stream habitats, and has complied with the National Environmental Policy Act by conducting an Environmental Assessment that came back predicting no significant impact to endangered species, Ertz and his clients aren’t satisfied with the science. They think the Forest Service should take the next step outlined by NEPA and prepare an Environmental Impact Statement in addition to the EA already conducted, even though a second study isn't required with a no significant impact finding.

“You’re supposed to take a good look before you leap,” said Ertz. “They didn’t take a good look, they were in such a rush to leap that they’re outright denying what’s pretty obvious. I mean, that much logging? Fifteen thousand giant logging trucks on those roads? Fifty-eight million board feet of lumber across nearly 15,000 acres, and they’re saying that’s not likely to have a significant impact on the environment?”

Department of Justice Public Affairs Specialist Mark Abueg, the legal contact for the defendants, declined to comment while litigation is ongoing. However, in a June 7 Forest Service press release, Lowman District Ranger John Kidd explained the ESDs.

“The Chief’s approval of the ESDs increases our ability to remove hazards, recoup timber value, and then invest this value in recovery and reforestation activities,” said Kidd. “The first priority has always been public health and safety.”

The release did not mention endangered species, instead pointing out that the projects only cover roughly 8 percent of the area burned in the Pioneer Fire. 

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