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Conservation groups challenge Buckskin Saddle project

by CAROLINE LOBSINGER
Staff Writer | June 20, 2023 1:00 AM

A pair of environmental groups have filed suit in federal district court, alleging that the Buckskin Saddle Project violates federal laws designed to ensure healthy forests and protect wildlife.

Officials with the Alliance for the Wild Rockies and Native Ecosystems Council said they had no choice but to challenge the Buckskin Saddle Integrated Restoration Project. Located on the eastern side of Lake Pend Oreille in the Idaho Panhandle National Forest, the project calls for 19,474 acres of logging — 13,005 acres of commercial logging and another 6,469 acres of noncommercial logging. 

“The scope of the planned deforestation is absolutely stunning, but the real shocker is the sheer size of the clear-cuts the Forest Service has approved,” Mike Garrity, executive director of the Alliance for the Wild Rockies, said.

The groups asked the court to set aside approval of the project and prevent its implementation.

The project covers approximately 50,663 acres of land on the east side of Lake Pend Oreille, south of the Clark Fork River. The Buckskin Saddle area straddles the Sandpoint and Coeur d'Alene River ranger districts in the Idaho Panhandle National Forest.

Roughly 33 miles of roads would be constructed, 160 miles of existing roads would be reconstructed or maintained, and eight miles of road would be decommissioned. Fifty-six miles of existing trails would be reconstructed, two new trail bridges would be installed, and two trailheads developed.

IPNF officials approved the Buckskin Saddle restoration project in 2021. In approving the project, Forest Service officials said it would address a multitude of needs, including forest health and decrease hazardous fuels. It includes the reduction of hazardous fuels near private land, access-egress routes and power lines.

The plan was signed off by Sandpoint District Ranger Jessie Berner, who said at the time that it was designed to increase the health and resilience of forests against insects, disease, drought and wildfires.

“We look forward to implementing these restoration treatments within the Buckskin Saddle project area,” Berner said in 2021. “We’ve designed the treatments to enhance and restore vegetation communities, address hazardous fuels, repair old roads, and reduce sources of road sediment to benefit water quality and aquatic habitat.”

However, instead of helping the forests and the wildlife found in the Buckskin Saddle area, the environmental groups contend the project harms them.

“This project is in bull trout, lynx, and grizzly habitat – all of which are listed under the Endangered Species Act which mandates the federal government to maintain and recover these native species,” Garrity said. “Despite the Forest Service’s attempts at convincing the public otherwise, clearcutting is neither forest nor endangered species restoration.”

In the lawsuit, the environmental groups also argued the U.S. Forest Service failed to evaluate the impacts on vulnerable bird species that rely on mature tree and/or old-growth forest habitat.

Its plans to clearcut the mature timber stands by saying the logging is needed to restore the area is hard to fathom, Garrity said.

“The agency says the logging will ‘restore’ the area, ridiculously claiming Douglas fir are the wrong species for the forest,” he added. “This is hard to believe since the Pend Oreille area is known for its moist forests and home to the Schweitzer ski area, famous for its deep powder snow.” 

The project is part of what the groups contend is an extensive logging project area stretching from the Clark Fork River south past Hayden Lake. The length of the project also poses concerns, the groups said in a press release announcing the lawsuit.

“Stretching a timber sale over 15-20 years will effectively eliminate the area for use and or recolonization by fisher since the best available peer-reviewed research finds that large clearcut openings prevent fishers from utilizing an area,” alliance member and retired Idaho Panhandle National Forest employee Paul Seracki said. “The Idaho Panhandle National Forest is using ‘chainsaw medicine’ to clearcut mature forests, but failing to designate equally large recruitment old growth stands.”

“The Forest Service is trying to illegally clearcut and bulldoze thousands of acres of our dwindling old-growth forests so we had little choice but to take the agency to court and force it to comply with the law.”

The groups are represented by the Seattle law firm of Bricklin & Newman LLP.