A Montana environmental group that sought to stop forest thinning in north-central Washington lost Tuesday when a federal judge in Spokane tossed out its lawsuit.
U.S. District Judge Salvador Mendoza Jr. said in his ruling the 50,200-acre Mission Restoration Project in the Okanogan-Wenatchee National Forest intends to make the Methow Valley more resistant to wildfires and climate change.
He dismissed claims by the Alliance for the Wild Rockies that logging and controlled burns will damage soils and deer habitat and be a setback for grizzly bear recovery in the North Cascades.
"No documented grizzly bear population exists in the (national forest), so any possible environmental effects stemming from the Mission Project cannot possibly affect a non-existent population of bears," Mendoza wrote.
The alliance's executive director, Michael Garrity, said Wednesday he disagreed with the ruling. "We're consulting with our attorneys about whether we'll appeal," he said.
The project will restore fish habitat, expected to be financed in part by commercially logging 1,800 acres. The project also calls for thinning 8,300 acres and controlled burning 10,200 acres.
The project also will remove 23 culverts and 34 miles of road. It has received broad support from conservation groups, as well as the Yakama Nation.
"We’re pleased to see the court affirm the forest restoration value and scientific integrity of the Mission Project," said Michael Liu, Okanogan Forest Lead for Conservation Northwest based in Twisp.
"This ruling is an example of where collaboration, community engagement and sound environmental analysis prevailed in the end to advance a project that’s a win-win for the forest, wildlife and local economy," he said.
The alliance claimed the project violated the the Endangered Species Act, National Environmental Policy Act and National Forest Management Act. Mendoza dismissed the claims one by one in a 54-page opinion.
Mendoza concluded the alliance's claim that too much ground will be compacted was based on a misreading of the project's soil report.
The Forest Service conducted a thorough analysis and found the project will improve deer habitat in the long run, according to Mendoza.
The Interior Department recently canceled plans to reintroduce grizzly bears to the North Cascades. No grizzly has been confirmed on the U.S. side of the border in the region since 1996.
Mendoza said there wasn't any new information about grizzlies that would require the Forest Service to formally consult with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.