After several years of legal wrangling, the Lostine Corridor Public Safety Project has been okayed. On Jan. 10th, the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled for the US Forest Service and against conservation groups Greater Hells Canyon Council and Oregon Wild in their efforts to halt the project.
According to the 9th Circuit Court’s decision, the agency didn’t violate the Healthy Forest Restoration Act when it concluded that “extraordinary circumstances” allowed it to forego doing an environmental study of the thinning project, which is aimed at reducing wildfire risks.
The Forest Service properly analyzed “resource conditions” along the river in the Wallowa-Whitman National Forest in deciding the project was eligible for a “categorical exclusion” from such environmental reviews, the 9th Circuit said.
“The Forest Service rationally concluded the Lostine Project had no effect, no adverse effect, likely no adverse effect, or a neutral or beneficial effect on each applicable ‘resource condition,’” the ruling said.
Likewise, the thinning project is consistent with the land and resource management plan for the national forest, the ruling said. “The Forest Service reasonably interpreted its plan, adhered to its relevant processes, documented its findings, and made rational conclusions based on those findings.”
The groups filed suit against the U.S. Forest Service and Kris Stein as district ranger of the Hells Canyon National Recreation Area and the Eagle Cap Ranger District on May 31 of 2017. Wallowa County applied for, and received intervenor status in the suit.
The 2100 acre LCPSP includes forest treatment, including the removal of hazard trees, some forest thinning, removal of hazardous material and at least one helicopter landing site along some of the 11-mile corridor that follows the Lostine River up to the Two-Pan trailhead, one of the most popular trailheads in the Eagle Cap Wilderness.
The two groups alleged that the agency bypassed the National Environmental Policy Act as it authorized the project as a Categorical Exclusion. The CE allows some federal agencies to sidestep an environmental impact study depending on the size and scope of the project. The groups argued the project didn’t fit within CE guidelines and was really a thinly disguised commercial logging project.
The conservation groups lost two previous appeals to the project, the first before circuit court magistrate, Patricia Sullivan at an Oregon District Court hearing in Pendleton. In June of 2018, Sullivan denied the groups’ claims. U.S. District Court Judge, Michael Simon, did the same without comment in August.
From there, the suit went to the court of appeals for a hearing with a panel of circuit court judges, including Nancy McKeown, Robert Pratt and Michael Hawkins on Dec. 12 of last year. The panel issued its decision on Thursday, Jan. 9. Darilyn Perry Brown, executive director of the Greater Hells Canyon Council said the group has no plans to appeal the decision.
(Mateusz Perkowski of Capital Press contributed to this article)