The U.S. Forest Service unlawfully approved a 2,500-acre timber project in Idaho’s Panhandle National Forests, according to a federal judge.
In 2011, the agency decided to conduct logging, road building, prescribed burning and vegetation management in the Fern Hardy Resource Area.
The Forest Service’s goal was to reduce the risk of wildfire, but the Idaho Conservation League objected to the plan.
The environmental group wanted the agency to rely entirely on existing roads, rather than build new ones, and had other concerns about wildlife and old growth trees.
The Forest Service said it modified the project based on those recommendations but the Idaho Conservation League filed a lawsuit seeking to stop it.
U.S. Magistrate Judge Ronald Bush has agreed with the plaintiff that the agency violated the Healthy Forest Restoration Act.
While the plan was declared unlawful, it’s still unclear how the ruling will affect on-the-ground activities in the forest.
The environmentalists and the government were expected to submit a proposed judgment as to the project’s implementation by March 27, though they may seek an extension.
Idaho Conservation League previously asked for an injunction against logging, road building and fire management activities.
If the parties are unable to reach an agreement, the judge will accept proposals from both sides.
Bush said the project violated the law because the Forest Service didn’t consider enough alternatives.
The agency evaluated the environmental consequences of moving ahead with the project and of doing nothing at all.
The judge ruled that the Healthy Forest Restoration Act clearly required the agency to consider at least one more “action alternative.”
It is an “inescapable anomaly” that the lawsuit is delaying a timber project when the statute was intended to expedite such plans, he said.
However, the Forest Service “concreted such a path” due to its faulty interpretation of the law, the judge said.
“Although many agency decisions are entitled to deference, when a decision is based on an error of law the agency is not properly exercising its discretion,” the ruling said.