Tower project litigation snuffed

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Firefighter crews extinguish hot spots on the Tower Fire. (Photo courtesy KEITH CURRIE, keithcurrie photography.com)

SANDPOINT — A lawsuit challenging two post-wildfire restoration projects on the Idaho Panhandle National Forest has been extinguished, according to U.S. District Court records.

Judge B. Lynn Winmill, chief federal judge for the district of Idaho, granted a stipulated motion to dismiss the lawsuit challenging the Tower and Grizzly fire salvage and restoration projects on Monday. The project arose from wildfire damage caused in 2015, which charred 47,500 acres of forest.

The Alliance for the Wild Rockies and the Forest Service moved jointly to dismiss the litigation earlier this month after the alliance was denied a preliminary injunction by the district court last year, prompting the conservation group to seek redress via the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals. The 9th Circuit, however, affirmed the lower court’s ruling.

Attorneys for the Alliance and the Forest Service also noted that both the Tower and Grizzly projects are over 99-percenet complete due to the declaration of an emergency situation.

“It would not be an efficient use of resources to file and litigate summary judgment cross-motions at this time because the projects likely will be complete before a decision on summary judgment could be issued,” attorneys on the case said in the motion.

The alliance filed suit against the Forest Service’s top brass in 2016, arguing that the public comment process on the projects’ analysis under the National Environmental Policy Act was too slight and raised questions about who would determine which trees were dead or dying. The litigation further questioned the Forest Service’s emergency-situation determination and a decision not to conduct a more rigorous environmental review under NEPA, according to the civil complaint.

Winmill found that the agency undertook numerous efforts to involve the public in the projects and also ruled that the emergency declaration was neither arbitrary nor capricious. Those rulings were ultimately upheld by the 9th Circuit.

“The court concludes that alliance has failed to show it has raised questions on the merits of its claims,” circuit court judges Ferdinand Fernandez, William Fletcher and Michael Melloy said in the Jan. 17 ruling.

The American Forest Resource Council filed friend-of-the-court briefs on behalf of the Panhandle Forest Collaborative and Bonner County, in addition to Pend Oreille County, Wash., and Mineral County, Mont.

The project were designed to produce up to 55 million board feet in timber sales. The sales were purchased by AFRC members which include Idaho Forest Group, Tricon Timber and Vaagen Bros. Lumber. AFRC held that the timber volume is essential to member operations and economies in the tri-state area.

“The 9th Circuit acknowledged the strong public support for the projects, determined that carefully-designed post-fire projects are an important tool for the Forest Service, and the court recognized the body of science suggesting post-fire treatment is needed to restore forested conditions and prevent future fires,” AFRC said in a statement on Monday.

Keith Kinnaird can be reached by email at kkinnaird@bonnercountydailybee.com and follow him on Twitter @KeithDailyBee.

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