Opinion: Conservation victory in pulling destructive Henry’s Fork logging project
Last December the Alliance for the Wild Rockies, Native Ecosystems Council, and Yellowstone to Uintas Connection took the Trump administration’s Forest Service to federal court over plans to massively log and burn over 40,000 acres in the very headwaters of the world-famous Henry’s Fork of the Snake River.
We are exceptionally pleased to announce that due to the very serious legal challenges we brought as well as the change in administrations, the Middle Henry’s Fork project has been canceled.
The clear waters of this incredible wild trout fishery wind through the mile-high caldera on the border of Yellowstone National Park. Besides being voted No. 1 out of the nation’s top 100 fly fishing rivers by Trout Unlimited, the headwaters of this huge drainage contain what’s left of the Caribou-Targhee National Forest’s old-growth stands and provides irreplaceable habitat for grizzly bear, lynx, wolverine, gray wolf, boreal toad, Columbia spotted frog, American three-toed woodpecker, boreal owl, great gray owl, bald eagle, northern hoshawk, peregrine falcon, trumpeter swan, elk, marten, moose, mule deer, and snowshoe hare.
Project would have destroyed nearly 66 square miles of endangered species habitat
The Forest Service decision called for logging and burning an astounding 42,274 acres of the Henry’s Fork watershed — more than one-third of the drainage’s120,000 acres — which is the largest on the entire Caribou-Targhee National Forest.
The simple truth is that the Targhee was the site of the largest clear-cut timber sale in the Lower 48 states in the 1970s. In a 2005 lawsuit, Federal Judge Lynn Winmill ruled that the Forest Service had violated the Targhee Forest Plan because it had already logged almost all of the old-growth forests — and by law could not log again until enough old-growth habitat was restored.
Winmill noted that a 1996 Forest Service inventory of old-growth “manipulated the data to reach a desired result” and ignored its study from two years earlier that documented very little old growth left and was riddled with statistical errors, such as arbitrarily adding an extra inch to the diameter of the trees it surveyed to inflate the calculations for old-growth.
It should come as no surprise that the Trump administration was trying to stuff this project through in the final days of his environmentally disastrous presidency. But using a “Categorical Exclusion” to exempt the entire project from National Environmental Policy Act was an over-the-top abuse. Categorical Exclusions were originally intended for minor routine maintenance needs like painting outhouses — not massive clearcutting and burning projects in grizzly bear and lynx habitat on the border of Yellowstone National Park.
By not taking the legally-required ‘hard look at direct or indirect effects’ the Forest Service implied there would have been no cumulative effects – a wholly unwarranted assumption since the agency didn’t even bother to document existing conditions or the project’s potential impacts.
Moreover, by not conducting any environmental impact analysis or allowing public review and comment the Forest Service violated the National Environmental Policy Act, misrepresented the presence of endangered species in the project area, and ignored the requirements of its own Targhee Forest Plan.
In conclusion, this was a horrific plan to decimate remaining old-growth forest at the cost of dumping sediment in the headwaters of the world-famous Henry’s Fork of the Snake River and destroying critical habitat for a vast range of endangered and native species.
We are proud to have challenged the Trump administration’s terrible project – and won – thus protecting this incredible old-growth forest as well as the waters and wildlife it supports. We would also like to thank the Biden administration for pulling this horrible project and thank the Bricklin & Newman law firm in Seattle for representing us.
If you would like to help us continue to protect and restore the Northern Rockies, we’d welcome your support at Alliance for the Wild Rockies. Mike Garrity is the Executive Director of the Alliance for the Wild Rockies