Litigation about the validity of a forest plan doesn’t happen very often, but two revised forest plans have been in the news for that lately.
Flathead court decision
The Montana District Court has decided the first case reviewing a forest plan revised under the 2012 Planning Rule, and it rejected decisions made in the Flathead plan related to roads because of the Fish and Wildlife Service and Forest Service had not adequately analyzed the effects of roads on grizzly bears and bull trout. The court held that the process of revising the forest plan violated the Endangered Species Act; plaintiffs did not challenge compliance with NFMA or the Planning Rule. The court found no violations of NEPA and travel planning requirements. The revised plan remains in effect pending additional analysis, but additional analysis will also be required for ongoing projects. I haven’t read the opinion yet, and it’s not clear to me why these projects should not also be required to comply with the old plan direction for roads, which would have limited road construction, unless/until the revised plan complies with ESA.
This article quotes the judge on the crux of the case regarding grizzly bears:
“The mere fact that the (NCDE) population was increasing from 2004-2011 does not justify moving away from the existing management requirements of Amendment 19. In effect, by recognizing that Amendment 19 laid the foundation for recovery of the NCDE population and then using that recovery as justification for getting rid of the existing access conditions, the Fish and Wildlife Service eschews Amendment 19 precisely because it was working. This action is arbitrary and capricious,” Molloy wrote.
Additionally, the article continues:
Molloy agreed the choice of conditions in 2011 was arbitrary. Even had the choice been acceptable, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service should have analyzed whether the new Forest Plan would have exceeded the 2011 baseline, which was a reflection of conditions existing while Amendment 19 influenced the plan. But the agency didn’t do that.
The USFWS also didn’t explain why it didn’t recommend culvert removal as part of road abandonment to aid bull trout survival. Molloy pointed out that the agency’s 2015 Bull Trout Recovery Plan emphasizes the importance of culvert removal and road decommissioning. But then the agency backed off, saying culvert removal wasn’t necessary in its 2017 biological opinion on the Flathead National Forest plan. Molloy acknowledged that part of the reasoning is because the roads aren’t being accessed, but evidence showed that at least two-thirds are being used.
Finally, Molloy said the Fish and Wildlife Service had failed to analyze how the new plan would harm grizzly bears on Forest Service land outside of the NDCE core area. So the biological opinion is flawed, as is the agency’s calculation of bears killed or affected by the plan, and the Flathead National Forest erred in basing its plan on a flawed opinion, Molloy wrote.
A key factor in the decision was apparently evidence presented by plaintiffs that requirements for road closures in the forest plan would actually result in continued public use of the closed roads.
This article quotes timber industry intervenors:
“It’s a pretty thorough and nuanced opinion,” said Lawson Fite, an American Forest Resource Council attorney representing the Montana Logging Association.
Colville new lawsuit
There may be more legal action ahead involving NFMA in new litigation filed on the recently revised Colville Forest Plan, which was summarized here (this plan was revised using the 1982 planning regulations). Most of the attention is probably on the Sanpoil Project, where plaintiffs raise issues related to the site-specificity of the analysis (see condition-based NEPA). They also make a NEPA claim related to our many discussions of historic/natural variability (versus an alternative that “was actually focused on maximizing timber revenue”); more on the forest plan aspects of that below.
One of the forest plan issues is old growth – specifically the elimination of the Eastside Screens which imposed a diameter limit on trees harvested, and whether the revised plan direction adequately provides for viability of old growth species in accordance with the provisions of the 1982 planning regulations, which require that old growth be “well-distributed.” The revised plan also eliminated pileated woodpeckers and American marten as management indicator species for old growth and did not replace them with anything.
The Forest prepared an “issue paper” on old growth as part of the objection process, which I will highlight below (you might want to keep in mind our recent HRV vs NRV discussions, though this is not an explicit requirement of the 1982 regulations):
The proposed Forest Plan replaces Eastside Screens with a series of desired HRV conditions (described in FEIS, Vol. 1, pp. 92-94, 99-132) but allows cutting of individual large trees when needed to meet desired conditions for structural stages, along with several other exceptions (FEIS, Vol. I, pp. 28-30). It provides a desired condition for forest structure (FW-DC-VEG-03) that provides for a diversity in forage and wildlife habitat. Additionally, forest-wide desired condition (FW-DC-WL-03 and FW-DC-WL-13) state that habitat conditions should be consistent with the historical range of variability.
Instead of fixed reserves in the current Forest Plan the proposed Forest Plan would have late structure contained throughout the landscape and all actions that affect forest vegetation would be assessed and compared to HRV, with the goal of moving the overall landscape toward HRV.
The proposed Forest Plan will result in approximately 780,592 acres of late forest structure in 100 years, which is slightly less than the current Forest Plan (810,583 acres). The proposed Forest Plan would, however, allow structure classes to shift around the landscape in response to disturbance and may result in more resilient forest landscapes.
The effects analysis described in the FEIS shows that maintaining a 21″ diameter limit reduces the ability to attain the desired future condition of having a majority of most vegetation types in late structure.
It’s great that they actually projected the amount of late forest structure. Based on the planned/expected reduction, I would have to conclude that their assessment told them they had too much of this compared to historic conditions. I think that would be fairly unique and create a burden to demonstrate that using best available science (which plaintiffs seem to be disputing). The last two paragraphs are a little hard to reconcile since the current plan would produce more old growth, but maybe there is too much of some old growth vegetation types and not enough of others?
The forest structure desired condition (FW-DC-VEG-03) includes an evaluation of the historical range of variability (HRV) and vegetation treatments at the project level will need to show movement toward this desired condition. This means that until the desired condition is reached, existing late structure would need to be maintained on the landscape.
This is an important interpretation of what they think their forest plan requires. Hopefully it says something close to this in the plan itself, but regardless, their EIS effects analysis would have been based on it and they should be held to it when project consistency is evaluated.