The lawsuit filed by environmental groups Greater Hells Canyon Council and Oregon Wild to stop the Lostine Corridor Public Safety Project received another setback Aug. 17.
District Court Judge Michael Simon upheld the findings and recommendations of Magistrate Judge Patricia Sullivan, who determined there was no merit in the suit.
The U.S. Forest Service proposed the corridor project in order to implement fire mitigation treatments along the 11 miles and 2,200 acres skirting Lostine River Road. The treatments include forest thinning, removal of hazard trees and some commercial logging.
The suit alleged that the USFS improperly used a categorical exclusion that allowed for the curtailing of environmental analysis. It also alleged the project violated aspects of the forest plan, lacked collaboration with the two groups as well as violated some regulations regarding the river’s designation as Wild and Scenic.
Wallowa County Board of Commissioners filed as an intervenor in the lawsuit last summer.
Commissioner Susan Roberts wasn’t surprised that Simon upheld Sullivan’s findings and recommendations
“Some very astute people have worked on that project for a long time,” she said. “It’s a fire, life and safety project if there ever was one.”
Roberts said that numerous people use the corridor for recreation and it hadn’t been tended to in quite some time.
“This isn’t about saving someone’s personal tree, it’s about saving lives and the landscape itself,” she said.
The commissioner added that in her opinion the project wouldn’t do anywhere near the damage to the intrinsic value of the corridor a fire would. She also said the project would also make it easier to access the backcountry, which is one of the primary reasons people visit.
Commission chair Todd Nash said he was pleased with Simon’s ruling. He also noted that Caroline Lobdell, the county’s counsel, thought that Simon’s upholding of Sullivan’s findings and recommendations essentially opened the gate for the project to move forward although an appeal to the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals is possible.
Nash noted that a former Forest Service employee had recently visited the area and saw trees he had personally marked for harvest more than 40 years ago were still standing.
“Unfortunately, this is the way we do business anymore, Nash said. “It takes forever to get anything done, and it’s unfortunate. Categorical exclusions were made to get things done on the fly. They’re slower now than what full NEPAs [environmental review] were quite a few years ago.”
He also said projects involving forest health and public safety need to be fast-tracked.
Nash also expressed puzzlement as to the reason for delays in implementation of similar forest projects. He said that at a recent Portland meeting composed of Forest Service personnel included the region forester as well as the state’s natural resource adviser, U.S. Fish and Wildlife officials, county commissioners from both sides of the state all wanted to increase the pace and scale to improve forest health and better protect against catastrophic fires.
“At the same time, I’m getting emails from Senator Merkley, Senator Wyden and Representative Walden all wanting to clean up the forest,” Nash said. “Everyone wants to move quicker. You wonder about the holdup when you have that lineal drive to do what’s appropriate, and you’re still at a snail’s pace and squabbling over categorical exclusions, which are minor in the bigger scheme of things.”
Nash directly linked the implementation of natural resources management to the county’s overall employment and economic future.
“Integrated Biomass depends on some of those projects,” he said. “There’s no reason we couldn’t have a viable sawmill in Wallowa County with a reliable source of timber coming off our federal lands, but we have a long way to go to instill confidence in people who would invest in such an endeavor.”
In an Aug. 21 email, Darylin Perry Brown, executive director for the Greater Hells Canyon Council, said she believed her group had a good case and said her organization was weighing their options.
“We ... are of course disappointed that he adopted Magistrate Sullivan’s findings and recommendations without meaningful analysis of our legal claims,” she said. “We have a strong case and remain committed to protecting special habitats in our mission area.”
Kris Stein, the district ranger for the Eagle Cap Ranger District, also named in the lawsuit, said the judicial decisions allow the project to begin.
“The project will forward -- until it doesn’t,” she said.
The plaintiffs have until mid-October to appeal Simon’s decision.