Cattle in the Colville (copy)

Cows graze in the Colville National Forest in northeast Washington.

A timber project that would open 10,600 acres for increased livestock grazing in Washington’s Colville National Forest is facing an environmental lawsuit that seeks to overturn its approval.

The Kettle Range Conservation Group has filed a complaint alleging the U.S. Forest Service authorized the 48,000-acre Sanpoil Project in violation of the National Environmental Policy Act.

The nonprofit organization claims the agency didn’t sufficiently analyze the project’s impacts or alternative forest treatments, particularly due to its close proximity to other large-scale timber projects.

Within the project’s boundaries, the Forest Service expects to harvest timber from 8,400 acres and conduct prescribed burns on 19,000 acres, which will make more land available for grazing.

“This activity would significantly impact forest ecosystems — transforming complex forests into clear-cut wastelands, damaging stands of old-growth trees, spreading invasive species, degrading riparian areas, compromising unique habitats, severing vital wildlife corridors, despoiling pristine wilderness and prime recreational areas and displacing sensitive, threatened and endangered species,” the complaint said.

The plaintiff alleges that 11 timber harvest projects affecting 179,000 acres in the national forest have been approved in the past decade, most of which are adjacent or near the Sanpoil Project.

However, the Forest Service’s environmental assessment of the project didn’t adequately study the cumulative impacts of these activities on riparian areas and wildlife species, contrary to NEPA, the complaint said.

The agency failed to analyze a reasonable range of alternatives to the project and only compared the treatments to taking no action, the plaintiff said. “The Forest Service refused to consider viable alternatives for the project that would have minimized environmental impact and preserved valuable wilderness areas, because it was impermissibly focused on maximizing timber revenue.”

Over a 10-year period, the agency expects to remove 50 million board-feet of timber from within the project’s boundaries, which is enough for up to 12,000 log trucks, the complaint said.

The project’s effects on the environment are serious enough to warrant an more robust “environmental impact statement,” rather than the environmental assessment conducted by the agency, according to the complaint.

The lawsuit claims the project is inconsistent with the 2019 Colville Forest Plan because it reduces “desired conditions” and diminishes the forest’s “scenic quality” and “wilderness characteristics.” The nonprofit organization also faults the forest plan for not complying with several federal laws.

The plaintiff has asked a federal judge to overturn the Forest Service’s approval of the project and enjoin logging, prescribed burns and road construction until the agency completes an environmental impact statement.

Capital Press was unable to reach a representative of the Forest Service as of press time.

In its authorization decision, the agency said the Sanpoil Project is “needed to promote forest health and resiliency” while improving water quality and providing local jobs.

The Forest Service said it considered five additional alternatives to the project but ultimately didn’t study them in detail and also reviewed cumulative impacts but didn’t find them to be significant.

By opening more than 10,000 acres to grazing, the project will “achieve better distribution on the landscape” of cattle, which will benefit riparian health and water quality, the agency said.

I've been working at Capital Press since 2006 and I primarily cover legislative, regulatory and legal issues.

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