Plans satisfied environmental laws, appeals court rules

By MATEUSZ PERKOWSKI

Capital Press

A federal appellate court has cleared the way for thinning on 1,000 acres of a California national forest after previously blocking the project.

The 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals has rejected legal arguments from an environmental group, Conservation Congress, which claimed the U.S. Forest Service's review of the project violated environmental laws.

"Conservation Congress has failed to show that the Forest Service did not consider the best scientific data," according to the court's order.

The plan to thin overcrowded stands in the Shasta-Trinity National Forest was approved by the agency in 2003 as a fire risk reduction method.

Environmental groups challenged the decision and the 9th Circuit initially halted the project in 2007, at which point thinning was about 45 percent complete.

At the time, the federal appellate court said the agency did not sufficiently study the project's potential environmental effects.

The Forest Service finished another environmental assessment of the plan in 2008, which was also challenged in court by Conservation Congress. When a district court rejected that complaint, the group appealed to the 9th Circuit.

Oral arguments were heard in the appellate court in February. Much of the debate centered on the Pacific fisher, a badger-like mammal under review for federal protection as an endangered or threatened species.

"They have lied to the public and said this project will not harm the fisher," said Marianne Dugan, attorney for Conservation Congress.

The Forest Service incorrectly estimated the negative effect of reducing canopy closure in the forest and used unreliable methods to monitor fisher populations, she said.

"They have refused to go survey for the fisher or do any other work that would correlate their ideas about the habitat," Dugan said.

This time, however, the 9th Circuit upheld the lower court's decision that the plan satisfied federal environmental laws.

The appellate court rejected the environmental group's argument that the Forest Service must monitor actual fisher populations, rather than use the animal's habitat as a proxy.

The claim that thinning would excessively reduce the fisher's "riparian travel corridor" was also rejected by the appellate court, which noted that less than 1 percent of the animal's habitat would be affected.

The court upheld other aspects of the Forest Service analysis on sensitive species, and dismissed the plaintiff's claim that an environmental impact statement was necessary for the project due to adverse effects on water quality.

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