Conservationists Challenge Massive Deforestation Project in Boise’s Most Popular Recreation Area

Wildlands Defense, Alliance for the Wild Rockies, Yellowstone to Uintas Connection, and Native Ecosystems Council filed a lawsuit against the U.S. Forest Service on November 1 to stop the Sage Hen logging and burning project euphemistically called the Sage Hen Integrated Restoration Project. But judge for yourself if this is “restoration.”

The Sage Hen project encompasses nearly 67,800 acres (106 square miles!) and involves commercial logging on nearly 20,000 acres, prescribed burning on 35,000 to 45,000 acres, and bulldozing up to 83.1 miles of roads in Boise’s most popular recreation area.

Yet, despite the enormous size of the project, the Forest Service did not disclose where the logging, the new logging roads, or prescribed burns would take place. That’s a significant concern since the landscape and watersheds in this vast area provide a great diversity of essential wildlife habitat due to the broad range of existing native vegetation and a large roadless wildland area. This habitat diversity is reflected in the many sensitive species, migratory bird species, and other wildlife that occupy the area.

Because of their close proximity to Idaho’s greater Boise metropolitan area, the area’s forests receive very heavy public recreational use including camping, hiking, wildlife watching, hunting, and both motorized and non-motorized use. Much of the surrounding area is private land or has previously been heavily altered by logging, vegetation treatments, and roading. Consequently, it’s a high priority for conservationists to protect the remaining mature and older forests in the area that are critical to both biodiversity and climate resiliency.

The project’s Upper Squaw Creek watershed also contains Federally designated Critical Habitat for bull trout that occupy the area. Bull trout have been listed as “threatened” under the Endangered Species Act since 1999. When it comes to clean and cold water, bull trout are the canary in the coal mine since they require very clean, cold, and connected water to survive. And of course our citizens also need clean water – which is best protected by intact watersheds, not barren stump fields and eroding logging roads.

All three sub-watersheds with bull trout habitat and/or known bull trout presence in the project area are already designated at a level of “unacceptable risk” for sediment and turbidity. Even the Forest Service’s own documents indicate that the project is likely to adversely affect the area’s bull trout population and damage bull trout Critical Habitat, which will injure, not restore, the bull trout as required by the Endangered Species Act.

Moreover, although the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) requires the Forest Service to provide the public with “notice and an opportunity to be heard” in the analysis of “specific areas in which logging will take place and the harvesting methods to be used” the agency has not met this foundational legal requirement.

The purpose of NEPA is to “look before you leap.” But how can the public review the information and provide relevant comments on this massive logging project when the Forest Service has refused to specifically delineate what they are going to do and where they are going to do it?

“Condition-based management” means the Forest Service authorized the project before identifying specific locations for logging, road construction, prescribed burns, and other fuel reduction activities and the impact that such activities will have on the wildlife and habitat. But since it doesn’t meet the minimum requirements of NEPA – and has already been soundly rejected by a federal court – we are left with no choice except filing our lawsuit to force the Forest Service to follow the law.

The grim reality is that U.S. Forest Service developed this new policy so they could clearcut and bulldoze logging roads on our national forests without being troubled by notifying the public about what they are doing and where or why they are doing it. The American Bar Association was so disturbed by this new practice that they released an article criticizing it as illegal.

At the world’s global climate conference in Scotland, 100 global leaders, including President Biden, just pledged to end deforestation by 2030 to combat global warming. Yet the Biden administration is moving forward with deforestation in Idaho. I guess we shouldn’t be too surprised since most of these same world governments made exactly the same pledge in 2014 and deforestation has increased by 40% in the last 7 years – which is why we still have to take the Forest Service to court if we want to stop deforestation here.

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