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Second lawsuit targets large west-central Idaho forest project

UPDATED: Wed., Dec. 22, 2021

A towering ponderosa tree is seen July 1, 2010, in the Boise National Forest near Idaho City, Idaho. The Idaho Conservation League in a lawsuit filed Monday said the U.S. Forest Service violated the Endangered Species Act and other laws in approving the 20-year Sage Hen Project in the Boise National Forest in April.  (Chris Butler/Idaho Statesman)
A towering ponderosa tree is seen July 1, 2010, in the Boise National Forest near Idaho City, Idaho. The Idaho Conservation League in a lawsuit filed Monday said the U.S. Forest Service violated the Endangered Species Act and other laws in approving the 20-year Sage Hen Project in the Boise National Forest in April. (Chris Butler/Idaho Statesman)
By Keith Ridler Associated Press

BOISE – The U.S. Forest Service violated numerous environmental laws in approving a 105-square-mile logging and restoration project in west-central Idaho, a conservation group alleges in a lawsuit.

The Idaho Conservation League in the lawsuit filed Monday said the Forest Service violated the Endangered Species Act and other laws in approving the 20-year Sage Hen Project in the Boise National Forest in April.

The Idaho Conservation League has a history of working with the Forest Service to shape various projects, but said this one had flaws. One of the group’s primary concerns involved requiring a fuller environmental study of the project’s ramifications.

“Unlike other forest projects ICL has supported, the Forest Service rushed the Sage Hen Project to approval, cut out the public, failed to consider alternatives, refused to prepare an Environmental Impact Statement, and deferred analyzing important effects to fish, plants and wildlife until after the Project is underway,” the lawsuit states.

The project includes 83 miles of road construction, up to 70 square miles of prescribed burning, 17.5 square miles of fuels reduction and 31 square miles of logging. The project is located southwest of Cascade.

The Alliance for the Wild Rockies and other groups filed a similar lawsuit last month. That lawsuit also requests the more in-depth environmental impact statement before the project goes forward.

The Idaho Conservation League lawsuit also questions a study by Fish and Wildlife, called a biological opinion, that the Forest Service used in creating the project that the group said will harm bull trout, a federally protected species.

The Forest Service has said the project will make the forest more resistant to insect outbreaks, reduce wildfire fuel hazards and remove dead trees, making it safe for firefighters and the public. The agency also said the project will create jobs and improve recreation opportunities for the area that draws visitors from rapidly growing southwestern Idaho.

Idaho in recent years has seen massive wildfires, and officials have said large projects that include multiple facets such as logging and restoration to make forests more resilient are needed.

Boise National Forest Supervisor Tawnya Brummett, in approving the project last year, said it was designed to be flexible, allowing the agency to “respond to changing conditions on the ground.”

But the Idaho Conversation League said that approach is illegal.

“The law requires the Forest Service to look before it leaps when it comes to major projects like this one,” said Bryan Hurlbutt of Advocates for the West, which is representing the Idaho Conservation League.

The U.S. Justice Department, which defends federal agencies in lawsuits, didn’t immediately supply a substantive response to an inquiry sent through its online portal.

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