Grizzly bears were the apex topic Tuesday at a court hearing in Spokane, as an environmental group challenged plans to log, thin or control burn 20,000 fire-prone acres in the Okanogan-Wenatchee National Forest.
The Alliance for the Wild Rockies claims the U.S. Forest Service failed to study how logging roads would affect grizzlies. U.S. District Court Judge Salvador Mendoza Jr. asked why it mattered, since grizzlies aren't there.
"I just come back to the point (that) roads can affect grizzly bears only if grizzly bears are there," he said.
Forest Service attorney Vanessa Waldref agreed with that point. "You hit the nail on the head," she said.
Several conservation groups support the Mission Project, as does the Yakama Nation. Timber sales are expected to help finance removing culverts and roads, and improving fish and beaver habitat.
The conservation groups hail the project as model for collaboration between environmentalists, government agencies and timber companies.
Proponents say the project will reduce the chance a catastrophic fire will rip through the 4 million-acre national forest and nearby communities in north-central Washington.
The Alliance, based in Missoula, Mont., argues the Forest Service violated the Endangered Species Act by going ahead with the project without consulting the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service about grizzles.
The Forest Service maintains the project isn't likely to harm grizzlies. A grizzly was spotted 60 miles to the north in Canada in 2015, but no grizzly has been seen in the North Cascades on the U.S. side of the border since 1996.
The Alliance's attorney, Kristine Akland, said the Forest Service should have consulted with USFWS because of new information about grizzlies.
The new information includes USFWS designating the North Cascades as a recovery zone for grizzly bears.
The Interior Department recently decided to not reintroduce grizzles there. "Isn't that a problem with your argument?" Mendoza asked.
Akland said that was a separate decision from the Forest Service's decision not to consult with USFWS.
The Alliance's other concerns include how logging will disturb soils and whether the restoration projects will be financed. The Forest Service sought to alleviate those concerns.
The Wilderness Society, Conservation Northwest and the Methow Valley Citizens Council filed a brief urging the court to dismiss the lawsuit. Chelan County and the North Central Washington Forest Health Collaborative also filed briefs supporting the federal government's position.
The project calls for logging 1,800 acres, thinning 8,300 acres and control burning 10,200 acres. Restoration work includes removing 23 culverts and 34 miles of roads.
The Forest Service and the Alliance are both moving for Mendoza to rule in their favor without a trial. Mendoza said he hoped to issue a ruling soon. "I want to be careful about this, so I might take a bit," he said.