The Eastern District of California District Court has reversed a decision by the Mendocino National Forest to implement the Smokey Project, which would include fuel and vegetative treatments intended to further habitat and fire management goals and contribute to the MNF’s timber production goals (Conservation Congress v. U. S. Forest Service). The project was located in a late successional reserve for northern spotted owls. It was prepared pursuant to the Healthy Forest Restoration Act, which requires only one action alternative to the proposed action if the additional alternative is (1) proposed during scoping or the collaborative process; and (2) meets the purpose and need of the project.
The court held that the Forest failed to consider an alternative with an 18” DBH diameter cap sought by plaintiffs. The court interpreted the phrase “collaborative process” to include “something beyond ‘scoping.’” The court then listed 14 comments in the record that suggested a diameter cap for large trees and/or expressed concern over the cutting of larger trees. It concluded, “Based on the Plaintiff’s active participation throughout the iterations of the Project … the Court concludes that Plaintiff’s suggestions were made during the collaborative process.”
The court found that the Forest had failed to “explain why none of these triggered the HFRA requirement to prepare a single additional alternative.” While the Forest had considered a 10” DBH diameter cap as a alternative not considered in detail, the court agreed with plaintiffs that this was a “straw alternative” because no comments had suggested such a low limit. The plaintiffs argued that, “more limited thinning from below prescriptions with quantitative diameter limits … were a viable option that would meet all HFRA objectives, while also being consistent with LSR duties,” and this was apparently not contested.
The court also found that the EA failed to take the “hard look” required by NEPA because of the lack of this alternative, and for two other reasons. The explanations of the use of a “limited operating period” as a mitigation measure were conflicting and caused confusion about the effects. The project documentation also failed to explain why admitted failure to monitor other projects did not render this project’s impacts “uncertain.” The court upheld the decision against other NEPA claims, which included a claim that the purpose and need for the project conflicted with the forest plan. The court also found that the project complied with ESA and with NFMA consistency requirements, including compliance with the spotted owl recovery plan (which had been incorporated into the forest plan).