Priest River USFS project faces lawsuit

By Lyndsie Kiebert
Reader Staff

An environmental group filed a lawsuit in federal district court Aug. 29, taking issue with a U.S. Forest Service project planned 25 miles north of Priest River.

The Alliance for the Wild Rockies, a Montana-based organization, is alleging that clearcutting practices, exclusion of an environmental analysis and possible threats to grizzly bear habitat make the Hanna Flats project unlawful based on federal standards. The suit is filed specifically against Idaho Panhandle National Forest Supervisor Jeanne Higgins, as well as against the USFS as a whole.

“Clearcutting is not forest restoration,” said Mike Garrity, executive director of the Alliance for the Wild Rockies. “Clearcutting hurts 95% of the native forest species in the area and the upper Priest River area has the largest contiguous area of old-growth cedar, hemlock and grand fir in the interior western United States.”

The project, approved Oct. 12, 2018 by Higgins, will use thinning techniques and prescribed burns to minimize the risk of disease, insect infestation and fire over 2,352 acres. Hanna Flats is a Good Neighbor Authority project, meaning the Idaho Department of Lands is a partner in the plan.

The Alliance for the Wild Rockies alleges that the USFS “illegally categorically excluded this project from the environmental analysis and public review required under the National Environmental Policy Act.” Garrity said that while “the Healthy Forest Restoration Act allows exceptions to the requirement for environmental analysis in the Wildland Urban Interface, it also defines the Wildlife Urban Interface — and this area does not meet the legal definition.” 

The group is also concerned about potential impacts to grizzly bears, claiming that by building more roads to accomplish the Hanna Flats work, the USFS is violating its own forest plan. The USFS project memo states that “upon project completion, both the total and open linear miles of road will be reduced by a net 1.2 miles within the Priest Bears Outside of Recovery Zone.”

“Considering both the logging of dwindling old growth forest and the road impacts on grizzly mortality — as well as excluding the public from the process and ignoring the duty to perform an environmental analysis, we had little choice but to take the Forest Service to court and force it to comply with the law,” Garrity said.

Contacted on Sept. 10, IPNF personnel told the Reader that the agency has no comment regarding the lawsuit at this time.

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