Judge Denies Injunction to Prevent Timber Harvest In Idaho Forests

Idaho District Judge B. Lynn Winmill denied two environmental groups’ preliminary injunction against the U.S. Forest Service (USFS), Department of Agriculture, and the Department of Interior.  The preliminary injunction was an attempt to block the Brebner Flat project, a forest management project.

The Brebner Flat is located in the St. Joe Ranger District of the Idaho Panhandle National Forests in Shoshone County, Idaho.  The opinion described three goals of the project: “1) To improve forest health and increase vegetation resilience to large scale disturbances such as wild fire, drought, and disease; 2) provide sustainable use of natural resources and benefit local communities; and 3) reduce hazardous fuels to lessen wildfire severity and enable safe fire suppression efforts.”  The project area is roughly 12,000 acres and will include approximately 1,700 acres of timber harvest and prescribed burnings.  Additionally, 10.5 miles of roads will be constructed or reconstructed for the project. 

The plaintiffs, Friends of the Clearwater and Alliance For the Wild Rockies, were seeking the preliminary injunction to prevent the timber harvest and road construction that will occur in the project.  Specifically, the plaintiffs alleged the USFS violated the Administrative Procedure Act in several ways by failing to prepare a biological assessment that included grizzly bears and Canada lynx as required in the Endangered Species Act (ESA), and failing to take a hard look at the cumulative effects on elk population and the scenic river corridor as required in the National Forest Management Act (NFMA) and the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA).

Judge Winmill, in his opinion, acknowledged the plaintiffs had a likelihood of success on the merits of the ESA claim.  The parties argued over the requirements within the text of ESA, 16 U.S.C. § 1536.  The plaintiffs argued the USFS was required to obtain a list of endangered or threatened species from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) for “any agency action.”  If any listed species were present, then the USFS had to complete a biological assessment.  USFS believed biological assessments were only needed for “major construction activities.”  However, Judge Winmill stated subsection (c)(1) “requires the action agency to request a list of endangered or threatened species and prepare a biological assessment for any species that may be present for any agency action.”  Furthermore, Judge Winmill noted that the Ninth Circuit’s original understanding has “not commanded otherwise.”

As for the NFMA and NEPA claims regarding elk security, Judge Winmill did not agree with the plaintiffs.  The plaintiffs alleged the USFS failed to take a “hard look” at the cumulative impacts the project would have on the elk population, and failed in its mitigation efforts in violation of NEPA.  Additionally, the plaintiffs argued the USFS decision to close park ATV trails to further secure the elk habitat would not add to elk security, which violates NFMA.  The court held the plaintiffs “have not raised serious questions relating to the Forest Service’s NEPA analysis of the cumulative efforts on the elk” and “also [found] that Plaintiffs have not raised serious questions as to the NFMA claim.” 

The court also disagreed with the plaintiffs’ scenic river corridor argument that the defendants are violating NEPA, because the plaintiffs again failed to “raise serious questions on the merits” of USFS’s compliance with NEPA.

In conclusion, Judge Winmill stated the plaintiffs’ “generalized allegations of harm do not demonstrate likely irreparable injury.” Additionally, “the public interest and balance of equities tips in favor of Defendants.”

Plaintiffs are represented by the Public Interest Defense Center.