Clearwater travel plan remanded (again)

Environmental plaintiffs successfully overturned the Clearwater National Forest travel plan in district court (newspaper coverage here). There are some implications for forest planning.

The court found the travel plan to be inconsistent with the forest plan’s requirement for elk habitat effectiveness (EHE) because it used the same methodology to evaluate EHE that was used for the forest plan. The methodology currently used (that the Forest Service helped develop) had added trails with motorized use to its road density calculations. The court considered this to be the best available science, which must be used in determining consistency with the forest plan, even though that creates (as the Forest Service put it) a ‘moving target’ for NFMA consistency. That’s an interesting argument for the Forest Service to make because the trend is for forest plans to defer more determinations to the project level, instead of having more specific direction in a forest plan.

The court also explained what is needed to demonstrate that an action ‘minimizes’ some outcome. (This case was specifically about ‘minimization’ criteria in an Executive Order related to motorized use, but the term is commonly found in forest plans.) Project documentation must explain exactly how a project was designed to meet the minimization criteria. General discussion of the criteria was not sufficient in this case.

The court upheld the NEPA analysis for the travel plan. However, it may have given the Forest Service a break by basing that decision on the fact that the decision was for an ‘entire forest’ and that it was ‘programmatic.’ The idea that NEPA analysis can be less demanding for broad-scale or programmatic decisions stems from the existence of another NEPA decision prior to actual impacts. While that is true for decisions to close roads (closure orders), it is not true for decisions to open roads.

(Since the Clearwater previously settled with motorized users in a case before a different Idaho judge, who kept the travel plan in effect, I’m not sure where this remand leaves travel planning on the Clearwater – especially in the context of ongoing revision of the Nez Perce-Clearwater forest plan.)

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