Fighting for Healthy Forests, Imperiled Native Bull Trout in Idaho
20th of Dec 2021
Advocates for the West recently filed a lawsuit on behalf of Idaho Conservation League (ICL) against the U.S. Forest Service for failing to comply with environmental laws when it approved the 20-year Sage Hen Integrated Forest Restoration Project.
The project includes extensive road construction, logging, thinning, and prescribed fire, plus some watershed restoration activities, on 68,000-acres of public lands in the Boise National Forest in and around the popular Sage Hen Reservoir in Idaho’s West Mountains. While the project could have served as a model for the next generation of forest restoration projects in Idaho and beyond, the Forest Service has missed the mark. According to the lawsuit, after careful initial planning, the Forest Service switched gears and rushed the project to approval, cutting out the public and placing the area’s plants, fish, and wildlife at risk.
“As a member of the Boise Forest Coalition, ICL was involved in the early development of the Sage Hen Project,” said Randy Fox, ICL’s West Central Idaho Conservation Associate. “ICL remains committed to forest restoration, but the process and outcome for Sage Hen were deeply flawed. Make no mistake, the Idaho Conservation League wants the Forest Service to succeed. We have invested years in this project. But we need to correct the course.”
“The law requires the Forest Service to look before it leaps when it comes to major projects like this one,” said Bryan Hurlbutt, Staff Attorney at Advocates for the West. “The Forest Service didn’t do that here. Instead of crafting a carefully-planned project with widespread support, minimal short-term impacts, and maximum long-term benefits, Sage Hen threatens serious environmental harm, without public buy-in, and all for uncertain benefit. This is particularly true for highly imperiled native bull trout, which are barely hanging on in the project area.”
“The Sage Hen Project was meant to be a ‘flagship’ integrated restoration project, highlighting the important ‘All Hands, All Lands’ approach to forest restoration,” said John Robison, ICL’s Public Lands Director. “With the fresh start we are asking for, it still could be.”
“The recent infrastructure bill could bring millions of dollars to Idaho for forest restoration projects. This is great news, but not if the Sage Hen Project serves as the example for these projects,” Robison added. “The current Sage Hen Project sets the precedent of distancing the public from decisions affecting public lands. Idahoans have a track record of working together to respond to climate change, reduce wildfire risk, enhance recreation opportunities, and improve forest health. The Sage Hen Project should embody this approach.”
The Sage Hen Project is part of troubling trend of the Forest Service using “conditions-based management” to approve larger projects with minimal up-front planning and environmental review. Under this approach, the agency authorizes a maximum amount of activity in the project area (such as miles of new roads and acres of commercial logging) but decides later — outside of the required, public environmental review process — specifically when, where, and how these activities will take place. As a result, the likely environmental impacts are largely unknown.
The Forest Service announced the project in April 2020, and in a highly unusual move for such a large and transformative project, the agency prepared an abbreviated Environmental Assessment rather than a more rigorous and detailed Environmental Impact Statement (EIS). The Forest Service approved the project just a year later, in April 2021.
In addition to the Forest Service, the lawsuit also names the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service as a defendant for failing to protect bull trout, a species listed as “threatened” under the Endangered Species Act due to significant population declines and ongoing threats. The isolated bull trout populations in the Sage Hen area are among the most susceptible of all bull trout in the United States to harm and habitat loss from climate change.
The lawsuit has three objectives, each of which would restart the project and provide for additional public involvement and planning:
- Urging the Court to order a more careful analysis, using an EIS to involve the public and conduct a detailed review of the project and its likely environmental impacts.
- Asking the Court to require the Forest Service to develop protective measures to ensure logging and road work do not unduly harm bull trout, sensitive plants, and wildlife.
- Urging the Court to order the Forest Service to consider a variety of alternatives to its currently narrow proposal, which could include additional forest and watershed restoration activities along with additional recreation opportunities and needed improvements.