A conservation group claims a 65-acre logging project on private forestland in Washington’s Klickitat County violates federal protections for the Columbia River Gorge National Scenic Area.

The Friends of the Columbia Gorge nonprofit has filed a lawsuit challenging the U.S. Forest Service’s determination that the project is consistent with the area’s management plan.

The complaint claims the logging project is slated to occur in a specially managed “open space” area that’s the “most restrictive” land use designation within the national scenic area, which was created by federal law in 1986.

Commercial forest practices are prohibited in the “open space” designation but the Forest Service came to the “erroneous and internally inconsistent” conclusion that the project complies with management plan requirements, according to the plaintiff.

The project area, which is owned by Synergy Resources LLC, is expected to generate about 1 million board-feet of timber.

Friends of the Columbia Gorge alleges that timber will be harvested using a cable yarding system from “steep, unstable and highly erodible” slopes that “poses a risk to water resources.”

The Forest Service concluded there aren’t any sensitive wildlife sites within or near the project even though the agency acknowledged the area contains suitable nesting habitat for the protected spotted owl, the complaint said.

The agency’s actions also “effectively ignore or waive” guidelines requiring field surveys for sensitive species such as the Western gray squirrel, according to the plaintiff.

“The consistency determination is arbitrary, capricious, an abuse of discretion or otherwise not in accordance with law,” the complaint said.

Friends of the Columbia Gorge has asked a federal judge to issue an injunction against the logging project and to overturn the agency’s conclusions. The nonprofit is also seeking compensation for its litigation costs.

Capital Press was unable to reach a representative of the Forest Service for comment about the lawsuit.

In its consistency determination, the agency said the project is aimed at “enhancing the forest structure, fire resiliency, and ecological function” of the area while helping it “achieve old-growth characteristics more quickly.”

After the thinning is completed, the project area will retain a canopy closure of 75% and none of the pines, grand firs and hardwoods in its boundaries would be logged, the agency said. Logging wouldn’t occur within “water resource buffers” and the project doesn’t require building new roads or skid trails.

Loud machinery would be restricted during the spotted owl’s nesting season, even though it doesn’t contain historic nest sites, and trees with Western gray squirrel nests cannot be removed as part of the project, the agency said.

“The proposed activity is a forest practice for the restoration of forest health and is consistent with the definition of a resource enhancement project,” which is allowed within “open space” designations, according to the Forest Service.

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

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