Though a major Idaho forest project ran afoul of the Endangered Species Act, a federal judge has decided against halting logging and road construction.

Fuels reduction and other treatments in the 12,000-acre Brebner Flat project — including harvesting 1,700 acres of timber and building 10.5 miles of roads — aim to improve stand health in the Idaho Panhandle National Forests.

Two environmental groups, Friends of the Clearwater and Alliance for the Wild Rockies, filed a lawsuit earlier this year claiming the U.S. Forest Service didn’t sufficiently analyze the project under the Endangered Species Act, National Environmental Policy Act and National Forest Management Act.

A request for a preliminary injunction against logging and road construction sought by the plaintiffs has now been rejected by U.S. District Judge Lynn Winmill, who has determined the circumstances don’t warrant such an order.

While the environmental plaintiffs are likely to win their claim that the Forest Service failed to conduct required biological assessments for the grizzly bear and Canada lynx, these organizations are unlikely to suffer “irreparable harm” if the project moves forward, the judge said.

The environmental groups haven’t demonstrated it’s likely the forest treatment project will actually harm these protected species, since only three grizzly bears have come within 12-15 miles of the project and the area doesn’t include suitable habitat for the Canada lynx, the judge said.

“The court recognizes a transient bear may wander near the project area,” Winmill said. “However, no bears have ever been identified in the project area,” there is no critical habitat within its boundaries and the vicinity doesn’t have a bear population, he said.

Similarly, the project area doesn’t have critical habitat for the lynx and the species isn’t suspected of living there, he said.

Meanwhile, the project aims to reduce the threat of wildfire while improving routes into and out of the area if a blaze does erupt, the judge said.

“The project will also contribute to the local economy and is broadly supported by the local community,” Winmill said. “Accordingly, the court finds that the public interest and balance of equities tips in favor of the defendants.”

The judge also rejected arguments by the environmental plaintiffs that the Forest Service insufficiently considered negative cumulative effects on elk.

“While the plaintiffs may disagree with the Forest Service’s conclusion, they have not raised serious questions regarding the Forest Service’s cumulative impacts analysis,” he said.

The federal agency mistakenly claimed the project area wasn’t within a “wild and scenic river” corridor, but no logging will actually occur within that corridor, the judge said. The plaintiffs haven’t raised plausible concerns the project violates the federal law protecting wild and scenic rivers.

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

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