A big timber project gets a big lawsuit

(Clear-cutting in the Tongass Forest, Alaska | by musicwood)


Over the years, the Forest Service has dreamed of being able to do “big gulp” projects, or in contemporary terms, “landscape scale” projects. These essentially amount to doing one EIS for a large area and a long time period before the actual locations and treatments have been determined. There are many of these in progress now across the country, and the approach is being tested (again) in court in Alaska on the Tongass National Forest. This Earthjustice news release includes a link to the complaint (filed May 7), which includes the following:

The Prince of Wales Landscape Level Analysis Project (the Project) in the Tongass National Forest includes extensive old-growth and second-growth logging. The project area is roughly 2.3 million acres. The project area contains about 1.8 million acres of national forest land. The Project authorizes logging of up to 656 million board feet (mmbf) of timber. The U.S. Forest Service (Forest Service) estimates that this logging would occur on over 42,000 acres. The Forest Service estimates about 164 miles of roads associated with the logging would be constructed as part of the Project. The Record of Decision authorizes implementation of the Project to take place over a span of fifteen years.

The Forest Service has authorized this Project using an approach that has been soundly rejected by the courts. The agency authorized the Project before identifying specific locations for logging or road construction. As a result, the FEIS does not adequately describe the direct, indirect, or cumulative impacts of the Project on the human environment or on subsistence uses.

In the 1980’s, the Forest Service lost at least two court decisions for failure to provide adequate site-specific information and analysis in the environmental impact statements (EISs) for Tongass timber sales. City of Tenakee Springs v. Block, 778 F.2d 1402 (9th Cir. 1985); City of Tenakee Springs v. Courtright, No. J86-024-CIV, 1987 WL 90272 (D. Alaska June 26, 1987). In subsequent Tongass timber sale EISs, the Forest Service began including comprehensive, detailed quantitative and qualitative descriptions of the logging and road access plans for each harvest unit proposed for sale. When it did so, the courts upheld the adequacy of the site-specific information. Stein v. Barton, 740 F. Supp. 743, 748-49 (D. Alaska 1990).

The FEIS’s Response to Comments states that “it is not possible to determine all of the direct, indirect, or cumulative impacts to wildlife habitat or connectivity that could result from this project before implementation.” Implementation of a particular part of the project has begun, apparently with no project-specific NEPA planned to determine those effects. Plaintiffs necessarily are challenging the entire project decision for violation of NEPA (and ANILCA) procedures.

There is a related NFMA issue that results from the Tongass forest plan imposing data requirements on projects that are hard to meet at this large scale, making the project inconsistent with the forest plan.  While this involves specific language in the Tongass plan, all forest plans explicitly or implicitly require certain analysis prior to projects.  The bigger the area, the harder that is to do.  And the trend of recent plan revision documents is to put off decisions about things like ecological integrity until project planning.  If successful, this could create an imposing analytical burden for large-scale projects like this one.

They are still going to have to do a site-specific NEPA analysis somewhere. The end result of all this may be that the Forest Service will create another level of planning and NEPA for “timber programs.” Just like the old days, except now added to the existing current plan and project level processes.

9 thoughts on “A big timber project gets a big lawsuit”

  1. Here’s another example on the Lincoln National Forest:

    *The agency plans to log more than 54,000 acres of the forest and remove limits on cutting large-diameter trees, but it’s unclear from the plan exactly where or when logging would occur. The South Sacramento Restoration Project also calls for using toxic herbicides on 140,000 acres of public lands and building 125 miles of new roads across steep mountain slopes.

    The South Sacramento Restoration Project proposes commercial logging across more than 20 square miles of spotted owl habitat and could expand the amount of logging to include the territories of 80 breeding owl pairs. In addition, the Forest Service has virtually ignored the impacts of logging equipment on habitat for the critically endangered New Mexico meadow jumping mouse.

    “Given the sensitivity of species like the Mexican spotted owl and the New Mexico meadow jumping mouse, it’s essential that any project of this scale carefully and concertedly lay out how it will impact forested and riparian habitats,” said Michael Dax, New Mexico representative for Defenders of Wildlife. “The fact that this project remains so ill-defined is extremely troubling and makes it nearly impossible to determine the short and long-term impacts on these species.”

    The Forest Service has proposed a “flexible toolbox” approach to logging which they defend under the pretense of “monitoring and adaptive management,” but they fail to define what, when, or how monitoring would proceed, or how management would adapt to adverse results.*

  2. There are ways to do this type of thing. One is to sign a separate decision each time a timber sale or stewardship project has been identified on the ground. Another one is to have clearly determined Project Design Criteria that will allow you to clearly stay within the effects analyzed in the NEPA document. In general, I find it has been much easier to do this type of project in managed stands that have already been disturbed/roads built/etc. It is much harder to define the project design criteria for projects in unmanaged stands, especially where there will be road building and larger amounts of ground disturbance.

  3. The Sierra Nevada Framework Plan has some similarities. There are many limitations on the kinds of projects that can proceed under the plan. It was a needed compromise but, painful to implement. Even today, there are some people out there who want to raise the diameter limits, or eliminate them, in favor of ‘more discretion’. I don’t think there are limitations to how much board feet, or acres treated. I think each project still has an EA done, based on the SNFP guidelines. Much of that NEPA stuff is ‘canned’, and always ready to be inserted into project plans.

  4. Larry – The Sierra Nevada Framework is actually the Sierra Nevada Forest Plan Amendment – which amended all the Sierra Nevada forest plans. It is not a landscape analysis like the Tongass has done. I fully agree with the comment from “anonymous”. A landscape analysis lays the ground for future NEPA.

  5. Responding to Anonymous:

    “There are ways to do this type of thing. One is to sign a separate decision each time a timber sale or stewardship project has been identified on the ground.”

    Any separate decision would have to be based on additional NEPA analysis. It’s possible that such analysis could find no new information about environmental effects warranting additional public disclosure (with that likelihood declining rapidly over time), but why design a process to produce “lit bait” projects presuming no NEPA?

    “Another one is to have clearly determined Project Design Criteria that will allow you to clearly stay within the effects analyzed in the NEPA document.”

    “Project design criteria” for future projects is what forest plans are supposed to do, so this would require a forest plan amendment (like SNEP). The Forest Service can’t design a process that hides decisions from the public.

  6. There are pros and cons. The point of landscape level projects is to reduce the high cost of NEPA while ensuring the reliable supply of timber that private industry needs to invest in forest harvest. The downside is that the public misses the opportunity to comment on the exact location where work will occur, but there is ample opportunity to comment on the management direction.

    I can only speak for the NM project, but if you read the several hundred pages of NEPA documents, they contain a large amount of specific analyses. Those pages aren’t empty! For example, they do segment the landscape into different management activities with BMPs for each area. The management actions are analyzed for every sensitive species and there are specific mitigations for each species. The press release mentions NM Meadow Jumping Mouse and Spotted Owls, both of which were analyzed extensivelyl, and for which management actions are specifically targeted to improve their habitat.

    Much of this analysis would be the same for smaller projects that are able to show actual locations of each activity, but with the added risk that a bunch of smaller projects could risk the “connected and interrelated” analysis trap, where every small project would have to analyze every other project and could be challenged as the Forest trying to get away with logging the whole forest by segmenting one project into many. There are issues either way…

    IMHO there may be too much focus on what the documents do or don’t say, and maybe not as much focus on ensuring that the contractors on the ground have the information and tools to be successful without damaging the resources.


Leave a Comment

Discover more from The Smokey Wire : National Forest News and Views

Subscribe now to keep reading and get access to the full archive.

Continue reading