Nez Perce Sue Agenciesby CBB Staff
The Nez Perce Tribe last week initiated a lawsuit against three federal agencies in an attempt stall a plan to harvest 42 million board feet of timber in north-central Idaho Lochsa River drainage.
The lawsuit says that the U.S. Forest Service, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and NOAA Fisheries -- in documents authorizing the harvest -- downplay the impact of the project on habitat for threatened bull trout and Snake River steelhead. Both are listed under the Endangered Species Act.
A Forest Service Record of Decision for the "North Lochsa Face Ecosystem Restoration Project" was signed in December 2002 after eight years of analysis and public involvement, according to the agency. The announcement of the decision said that the project strikes a balance between environmental restoration and providing logs and work for local communities.
The lawsuit says that the decision fails to strike that balance and accuses the agencies of failing to adequately evaluate and consider the impacts of the project on areas of important fish habitat.
"This case is about the federal government's commitment to protect fish habitat," said Anthony Johnson, chairman of the Nez Perce Tribal Executive Committee. "When the federal government promised we could recover fish without breaching dams, it was based on the promise that upstream habitat would be protected and restored. This project flies in the face of that promise."
The Forest Service project proposes the log about 4,032 of the 128,000 acres in the North Lochsa over the next five to 10 years. It also proposes some 12,530 acres of prescribed burning, which it says will encourage and maintain the growth of native trees ands plants best suited to a fire-adapted system such as the Lochsa. The agency says the burns will also reduce the amount of dead and dying vegetation, fuels that could sustain more intense wildfires in the area.
The project also calls for the decommissioning of some 66 miles of roads that speed erosion of sediment into basin streams. Another 54 miles of roads are scheduled will be stablized and closed to motorized traffic, also to reduce erosion. Some 600 acres are targeted for plantings and other work to improve aquatic conditions. The agency also says timber harvest will be used to diversify the ages of the trees and restore tree species that are suited to the fire-adapted area.
The lawsuit, however, accuses the Forest Service of ignoring the standards of its own Clearwater Forest Plan by "conducting degrading management activities such as commercial thinning, regeneration harvest, salvage, prescribed burning, road maintenance and road construction. The temperature and sediment levels of many streams in the Lochsa area are significantly degraded from past and present land managementů."
"The tribe does not want to be in the business of shutting down timber projects," John said. "This is the first time the Nez Perce Tribe has actually filed a federal lawsuit over a Forest Service project.
"We worked with the Forest Service and other agencies throughout their analysis process, informed them of our concerns and filed to administrative appeals to the regional forester," Johnson said. "After all of this, the agencies still issued a decision that largely ignored the tribe's concerns and issues with the impacts of the project on fish habitat and water quality. We were left with no other choice than to file a lawsuit."
The tribe says the project would have the effect of stymieing progress that the Nez Perce and others have made in restoring Clearwater watersheds.
"Since 1996 the tribe has implemented millions of dollars of restoration projects on the Clearwater, Nez Perce, Payette, Umatilla and Wallowa-Whitman national forests, said Ira Jones, director of the tribe's Watershed Program. The program has contracted with the Bonneville Power Administration to implement more than $11.3 million of habitat work in the Clearwater River basin since 1996. That includes $450,000 over three years in the North Lochsa Face area, Jones said. Those projects include riparian restoration (fending and revegetation), road decommissioning, culvert replacement, and other stream restoration.
"Despite the lawsuit we are committed to continuing to build our partnerships with our federal co-managers to ensure that recovery goals are met and that our concerns are addressed," Johnson said.
The lawsuit says that NOAA Fisheries violated the ESA by issuing a biological opinion that falsely concludes that the project will not jeopardize the continued existence of, or result in the destruction or adverse modification of critical habitat for the threatened Snake River Basin steelhead. It asks the court to set aside that opinion. The lawsuit was filed in the U.S. District Court of Oregon in Portland.
The lawsuit also says the USFWS violated the ESA with its determination that the project would not adversely affect bull trout. It asks that the court set aside the USFWS concurrence letter determination.
The tribal litigation says that the Forest Service violated the National Environmental Policy Act, the National Forest Management Act and the Administrative Procedures Act and the agency's own implementing regulations. The lawsuit asks the court to declare the project's final Supplemental Environmental Impact Statement and ROD illegal and order the agency to develop new documents that "resolve the violations of law."
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