Ninth Circuit Dismisses Challenge to Forest Project on Mt. Baker-Snoqualmie National Forest

On March 27, the U.S. Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed the district court’s decision on summary judgment regarding a challenge the South Fork Stillaguamish Vegetation Management Project on the Mt. Baker-Snoqualmie National Forest, allowing the project to proceed.

The American Forest Resource Council (AFRC) intervened in the litigation on behalf of Hampton Lumber Mills-Washington, Hampton Tree Farms, and Skagit Log and Construction, which were awarded contracts to harvest timber and perform road maintenance activities within the project area.

Located on the South Fork of the Stillaguamish River drainage, the project will implement commercial thinning on up to 3,300 acres of second-growth stands to improve habitat for old-growth associated wildlife species. It will also enhance vegetation diversity in riparian areas, improve recreational opportunities, and promote stand resiliency to climate change on a landscape scale.

Back in 2020, the anti-forestry group North Cascades Conservation Council and Kathy Johnson sued the Forest Service seeking to halt the project, claiming it was inconsistent with a 1994 Northwest Forest Plan requirement that there be “no net increase in roads” within Key Watersheds, among other claims.

However, the project relies on only open, stored, and temporary roads, all of which will be decommissioned, and in fact would result in a net decrease in road miles after project activities are completed. Following defeat in the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Washington, North Cascades Conservation Council et al. appealed to the Ninth Circuit.

Oral argument before a panel of Ninth Circuit Judges was held in Seattle back in February. AFRC General Counsel Sara Ghafouri informed the Court on how the project followed all environmental laws and regulations relating to temporary road construction, emphasized how contractors carry out their road operations specific to each contract and the needs for harvesting and treatment operations, and explained the usual and customary practices undertaken to open, use, and then decommission a road.

The Ninth Circuit held that the “Forest Service reasonably interpreted ‘net increase’ to permit roads that temporarily increase the mileage in the Project area so long as, at the end of the Project, there is  no increase.”  Despite North Cascade Conservation Council et al.’s concerns that some temporary roads will violate the prohibition on “net increase[s]” because the roads will remain too long before being decommissioned, the Ninth Circuit found that “the roads in this case will be sufficiently transitory to comply” the Northwest Forest Plan.

“We are pleased the Ninth Circuit rejected this lawsuit and will allow this project to proceed,” Ghafouri said. “This landscape-scale project will provide healthier forests and habitat for wildlife and aquatic species, while supporting the economy in nearby rural communities. This decision should encourage the Forest Service to develop and implement more forest projects in the Washington Cascades.”

The project is supported by the Darrington Collaborative, which represents diverse interests and forest users with the goals of increasing ecologically sustainable timber harvests, creating jobs, and improving and restoring the health of forests and watersheds.  The Collaborative noted that the project provides “a balance between several important values on the Forest” and that the Collaborative believes “these treatments, over time, will increase the diversity, habitat value, and resilience of these stands and the landscape.”