The Legal Showdown at Hanna Flats

Hanna Flats, Idaho Panhandle National Forest. Photo: Paul Sieracki.

The upper Priest River area in the Idaho Panhandle National Forest has the largest contiguous area of old-growth cedar, hemlock, and grand fir in the interior Western United States and the largest concentration of ancient cedar stands in northern Idaho.  Because of the bowl-shaped topography the high ridges on three sides capture cold air in the lower elevations and trap cool moist air in the summer.  The result is that the low-elevation winter snowpack is deeper and more persistent than elsewhere in northern Idaho and summertime conditions are relatively moist and cool compared to neighboring areas which makes the area less susceptible to wildfires.

Nonetheless, the Forest Service’s Hanna Flats logging project included clearcutting 1,109 acres, commercial logging on 734 acres, 360 acres of pre-commercial logging, and 149 acres of prescribed burning to supposedly protect the “wildland-urban interface” from wildfire. It’s worth noting the clearcutting was strongly opposed by local residents who cherish this area for its natural beauty and abundant recreational opportunities.

Fortunately, the federal court in Idaho saw through the ruse and on April 27th, handed down a decision that found Trump’s Forest Service violated federal law when it “categorically exempted” this commercial timber sale from the environmental analysis requirements of the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) and the Healthy Forest Restoration Act (HFRA).

The Court held that “[b]y not using the statutory definition of a wildland-urban interface, the USFS violated HFRA, thus rendering its use of the categorical exclusion unlawful” and noted that the Forest Service never provided a clear explanation of how the entire project area could be defined as a “wildland-urban interface.” In one explanation, the Forest Service used a definition that includes all areas within two miles of a home, but as the court noted “there is no way of knowing whether the Project would have fallen within the wildland-urban interface as defined by the 2012 Wildfire Plan because it is unclear whether all Project units are within two miles of human habitations.”  In another explanation, the Forest Service argued that the entire county was a wildland-urban interface, but again the court noted “the relevant question, however, is whether it should be, under the requirements of HFRA.”

This is critically important because a forest next to a community – the ‘wildland-urban interface’ has fewer environmental safeguards than a remote forest.  The Trump administration tried calling almost everything a wildland-urban interface in an illegal attempt to evade environmental protections for native species such as lynx and grizzly bears and old-growth forests.

The Court held:  “It is not enough to simply declare that the Project is within a wildland-urban interface, especially when the intended purpose of doing so – as in this case – is to avoid the requirement of preparing an EA (or EIS) as would otherwise be required under NEPA. There must be something else that connects the dots and thereby would support Defendants’ position that the categorical exclusion under HRFA applies to the Project.” The court concluded:  “In short, simply saying that the Project is within the wildland-urban interface, without more, does not make it so.”

The Court further held:  “whatever definition (uncertain or lacking entirely) of wildland urban interface the USFS applied to the Project, it did not clearly take into account at-risk communities as required by HFRA – uniquely defined therein as either (1) an interface community (with three or more structures per acre or a population density of 250 people per square mile), or (2) a group of homes/other structures with basic infrastructure and services within or adjacent to Federal land.  To state – as Defendants do – that a community wildfire protection plan (like either Bonner County’s 2012 or 2016 Wildfire Plans) by itself suffices to establish a wildland-urban interface for the purpose of invoking a categorical exclusion, ignores these realities…The Court must give meaning to all the words used in defining wildland-urban interface and thus cannot read out HFRA’s explicit incorporation of at-risk communities in the definition of wildland-urban interface, or ignore HFRA’s simultaneous definition of at-risk communities themselves.”

Because the Forest Service violated clear federal law, the Court halted the Hanna Flats timber sale project and remanded it back to the Forest Service to apply the legal definition of “wildland urban interface” and determine whether the project legally requires environmental analysis.

I would like to thank Paul Sieracki and Jeff Juel for all of their help in stopping this project.  Paul lives in the area and is a retired Forest Service biologist/geospatial analyst. He frequents the Hanna Flats area for nature appreciation.  Jeff Juel works for Friends of the Clearwater.

We won this challenge, but the battle to protect the Priest River’s old-growth forests is not over.  We’d be grateful if you want to help the Alliance protect this unique area at allianceforthewildrockies.org

Mike Garrity is the executive director of the Alliance for the Wild Rockies.

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