The Eastern California district court upheld the Harris Project on the Shasta-Trinity National Forest on Feb. 26. The project would treat about 2800 acres in northern spotted owl habitat. The Forest Service determined that the project would be “not likely to adversely affect” spotted owls, and the Fish and Wildlife Service concurred. The court found that spotted owls would be able to continue to feed, shelter, or disperse within the 17 acres of treated area in foraging habitat, and therefore the determination and concurrence complied with ESA. It also found that incomplete surveys were the best available science for determining owl presence.
The court also found that the agencies followed the recommendations in the spotted owl recovery plan. The recovery plan encouraged long-term improvements in habitat even if there were some short-term adverse effects, and, “Defendants weighed the short-term impacts against the long-term benefits and concluded that the Harris Project would ultimately help protect and increase northern spotted owl habitat. The court deferred to the agencies’ judgments that this project complied with this strategy. (The highlighted terms suggest that there would in fact be adverse effects that should have required a finding of adverse effects and triggered formal consultation to comply with ESA. Offsetting beneficial effects do not negate this ESA consultation requirement.)
As result the court also held that the project complied with NFMA because it was consistent with the Shasta-Trinity forest plan that required the Forest to, “maintain and/or enhance habitat for” threatened, endangered, and sensitive “species consistent with individual species recovery plans.”
The court also upheld the Forest Service NEPA process. It adequately addressed the effects on spotted owls of promoting ponderosa pine, and properly concluded that other treatments would lead to overall effects that would be beneficial. The court also found that a new report on reducing fire risk (Lydersen) did not contradict information used by the Forest Service, and therefore an SEIS was not needed to address it.