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Snow Basin Project Vacated

December 31, 2015

This April, Judge Hernandez in Portland brought the district court proceedings for the 28,000-acre Snow Basin Project in the Wallowa-Whitman National Forest to an end by vacating the Forest Service’s Record of Decision (ROD) and Final Environmental Impact Statement (FEIS). That final judgment only came after a very long litigation path that took the case up to the Ninth Circuit.

In the early 1990’s, the Forest Service realized that the national forests in Eastern Oregon had been heavily over-logged and lacked sufficient old growth and large trees to maintain biodiversity. Multiple scientific studies identified several species in decline throughout eastern Oregon forests that depended on old growth or large trees. Species like the Pileated woodpecker and the American marten. To address this decline, the agency adopted region-wide land management plan amendments, called the East Side Screens, that barred the logging of old growth and all trees over twenty-one inches in diameter at breast height (under most circumstances). Unfortunately, only a few years after adopting the East Side Screens, the Forest Service began undercutting these forest-wide restrictions by adopting so-called “site-specific” amendments to their land management plans that created exceptions to the Screens for numerous timber sales. 

When it was approved in early 2012, the 28,000-acre Snow Basin Project in the Eagle Creek Watershed of the Wallowa-Whitman National Forest was, by far, the Forest Service’s largest deviation from the East Side Screens and most serious misuse of the site-specific amendment process. The Record of Decision for the Project authorized two site-specific amendments allowing the logging of more than ten thousand large trees, mostly grand fir, and logging in hundreds of acres of old growth stands. Earthrise and the Blue Mountain Biodiversity Project joined with our co-plaintiff Hells Canyon Preservation Council to file a legal challenge to the Snow Basin Project in December of 2012. Boise Cascade and two local counties intervened in the case on the side of the Forest Service.
The Forest Service sought to immediately implement the Project and refused to halt several timber sales until our lawsuit could be resolved. This in turn forced us to file a risky motion for a preliminary injunction in early 2013. After losing that motion, because the district court thought we were unlikely to prevail, we filed an even riskier appeal to the Ninth Circuit. After hearing argument on our appeal in February 2013, the Ninth Circuit issued an opinion reversing the district court and ordering it to issue a preliminary injunction. But it left the scope of that injunction up to the trial court. We also learned that the intervening timber company had logged far fewer trees than it had planned while our appeal was pending.

Back before the district court, the intervening timber company refused to stop logging—despite the Ninth Circuit’s order—and forced us to seek an immediate injunction at the same time as we were briefing the scope of the preliminary injunction. In June 2014, the trial court gave us an immediate injunction, and in August it issued a broad preliminary injunction against two pending timber sales.
Finally, almost two years after filing the case, and without the threat of ongoing logging, we were able to address the full merits of our case based on a complete administrative record. 

We argued in support of our summary judgment motion in October 2014, and the district court granted most of our claims in a lengthy opinion in December. Most significantly, we found that the substance of and process used for the site-specific amendments violated the National Forest Management Act and the National Environmental Policy Act. This is the first time that a federal court has found that the Forest Service’s use of site-specific amendments is illegal. Even after this ruling in our favor, the Forest Service and intervenors contested the scope of our proposed final judgment. But we mostly prevailed on that issue too when the court decided to vacate both the ROD and FEIS.

Earthrise Managing Attorney Tom Buchele had the help of numerous Earthrise students during the long struggle to achieve this important victory for our client and the forest. Tom and our client are very grateful to Earthrise students and alums Emma Bruden, Liv Brumfield, Carter Moore, Sara Blankenship, Susan Culliney, Jessica Gallagher, Ryan Talbott, Jeff Speir, Joanna Lau, Andy Erickson, and Zachary Dorn for all of their invaluable assistance on this case.

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