Court OKs thinning once more

Idaho Panhandle National Forests

Court reaffirms previous ruling on logging in Panhandle National Forests


Capital Press

An environmentalist group has failed to convince a federal appeals court that thinning of old growth stands in Idaho's Panhandle National Forests is unlawful.

The 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals rejected arguments from the Lands Council, which claimed a 270-acre thinning project impermissibly degraded old growth habitat.

The decision largely reiterates a previous ruling in the case, in which the appellate court famously refused to stop the U.S. Forest Service from implementing the project.

In that 2008 opinion, Lands Council v. McNair, an 11-judge panel of the 9th Circuit set an important precedent, essentially ruling that courts cannot nitpick the science underlying agency decisions.

Though Lands Council failed to win an injunction against the project, the group nonetheless continued trying to persuade a federal judge that the Forest Service had violated environmental laws.

When those efforts failed last year, the group appealed the decision and the case again wound up before the 9th Circuit.

Under the national forests' official management plan, the agency is required to keep at least 10 percent of the 2.5 million acre area in old growth habitat.

The Lands Council alleged that the Forest Service relied on an inaccurate inventory of the forest to conclude that the level of old growth habitat exceeded the 10 percent threshold.

Because the actual amount of old growth was lower than 10 percent, the agency could not permit any further logging of such habitat, the group claimed.

The project only allows for the harvest of younger, smaller-diameter trees, but the Lands Council alleged such thinning would remove valuable multistory habitat.

"An old growth stand with old growth trees and no undergrowth is a park. That's not old growth habitat. That's not what species rely on," an attorney for the group said during oral arguments earlier this year.

The 9th Circuit dismissed the group's contention that thinning equates to removal of old growth forest.

The three-judge appellate panel also refused to second-guess the agency's technique for assessing whether the 10 percent old growth standard has been met.

"It is within the Forest Service's discretion to choose its methodology, as long as it explains why it is reliable," the opinion said.

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