Environmentalists have failed to persuade a federal judge to block the salvage logging of hazard trees burned during a 2016 wildfire in Idaho’s Boise National Forest.
Over four months, the Pioneer Fire burned about 190,000 acres in the forest, including areas frequently visited by tourists. The federal government decided to harvest about 70 million board-feet of dead and hazard trees from less than 8 percent of the burned area.
Three environmental groups — Wildlands Defense, Alliance for the Wild Rockies and Native Ecosystems Council — filed a lawsuit opposing the plan last year.
The complaint argued the U.S. Forest Service didn’t properly consider the effects of salvage logging on the bull trout, a threatened fish species, in violation of several federal environmental laws.
Chief U.S. District Judge Lynn Winmill has now rejected the plaintiffs’ motion for a preliminary injunction halting the two salvage logging projects, which affect the Payette River and Boise River watersheds.
Roughly half of the 14 timber sales involved in the projects have already been completed.
Timber harvest began in the two areas under an “emergency situation determination” by the Forest Service, which found that logging shouldn’t be delayed because burned trees were a hazard to the public and deterioration would reduce their value by $1 million.
Because the wildfire affected steep slopes with soils prone to erosion, the agency established buffer zones around waterways where logging and road-building would be restricted.
“Sediment is deadly for bull trout. It increases water temperature, kills food sources and destroys habitat, among other things,” the judge said. “These impacts are magnified because the creeks are already functioning at risk, meaning that they cannot absorb much sediment and still offer protective habitat for the bull trout.”
The environmental plaintiffs objected to the Forest Service’s erosion models, arguing that sediment would move farther than the agency expected.
However, Winmill has ruled the buffers of 120 feet to 240 feet were based on sound data and models, noting that the Forest Service took “extra steps” to ensure accuracy.
For example, the agency compared its models with actual erosion after a previous fire and determined that sediments moved roughly 30 to 70 percent less than projected, the judge said.
“Under these circumstances, the court cannot find that the plaintiffs have raised serious questions on their claims regarding threats to the bull trout from sediment movement,” he said.