By MATEUSZ PERKOWSKI

Capital Press

The U.S. Forest Service did not break environmental laws by scaling back monitoring of "bellwether" species in California national forests, according to a federal judge.

The Forest Service once tracked 60 indicator species in the state's Sierra Nevada range that were believed to reflect the ecological health of the forests' wildlife habitat.

The monitoring was intended to guide the forest-management decisions, but tracking some species proved to be impractical, overly expensive or irrelevant, according to the agency.

The self-imposed regulatory obligation to monitor these species also created legal problems for the Forest Service, with dozens of logging and restoration projects getting blocked by courts due to insufficient tracking.

So in late 2007 the agency cut its list of indicator species by 80 percent. The revised regulations required the Forest Service to monitor only 12 species in a reduced number of habitats.

Also, projects approved by the agency were allowed to proceed even if species monitoring wasn't complete.

Several environmental groups opposed the change and filed a lawsuit challenging the Forest Service's rule-making procedures.

Plaintiffs in the case -- Sierra Forest Legacy, Center for Biological Diversity, Sierra Club and Defenders of Wildlife -- claimed the agency's environmental review of the amendment was inadequate.

The Forest Service hadn't fully explored the potential negative outcomes that reduced monitoring could entail, since the amendment removes important safeguards in the project-approval process, according to the groups.

U.S. District Judge Samuel Conti disagreed with those arguments, ruling that the groups did not point to any specific projects that would be affected by the changed monitoring protocol.

The agency performed the legally mandated analysis of new regulation and was not required to "flesh it out in greater detail than required," Conti said in his decision.

Though it's likely that reduced monitoring will eventually have some effect on agency decisions and the ecology of Sierra Nevada forests, it's unrealistic to expect the Forest Service to foresee every possible outcome, the judge said.

The judge said in his ruling the agency is required to take a hard look at the consequences of its decisions, "but in this particular case, asking the Forest Service to describe in detail the hypothetical impacts of future monitoring, or of projects that might go forward in the absence of monitoring, would be akin to asking the Forest Service to perform a 'crystal ball inquiry.'"

Staff writer Mateusz Perkowski is based in Salem, Ore. E-mail: mperkowski@capitalpress.com.

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