BOISE, Idaho (AP) — A giant forest project in Idaho is on hold following a ruling by the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.
The decision Monday halts the 125-square-mile (325-square-kilometer) project on the Payette National Forest that includes commercial timber sales, work to improve fish passage, prescribed burning to reduce forest fire risks and the closing of some roads.
The Alliance for the Wild Rockies filed the lawsuit and appeal. It contends the project allows more logging of mature forests, which harms species that rely on old-growth. The group also said the project harms fish habitat for federally protected bull trout.
Other environmental groups the backed the project.
The appeals court didn't delve into whether the project was good or bad. The court ruled that parts of the project weren't in line with the 2003 Payette National Forest Land and Resource Management Plan that had gone through a public environmental review process.
National forests are required to create such plans using a public process that follows environmental laws. The appeals court said the Payette National Forest didn't do that, and deviated from its 2003 plan in approving the project. The court took issue with, among other things, a Forest Service change in how large sections of the forest would be managed when it came to logging and restoration.
"If we would have lost, it would have meant forest plans aren't binding," Mike Garrity, executive director of Alliance for the Wild Rockies, said Thursday.
The appeals court decision sent the case back to the U.S. District Court in Boise with instructions to vacate the Forest Service's 2014 decision approving the project.
The Forest Service doesn't comment on litigation. The U.S. Department of Justice, which represents federal agencies in legal actions, acknowledged receiving an emailed inquiry from The Associated Press on Thursday but didn't respond further.
Work on the forest project, called Lost Creek-Boulder Creek Landscape Restoration Project, started in spring 2015. It had the support of the Payette Forest Coalition, a diverse collaboration of groups and individuals which intervened in the case on the side of the Forest Service.
The Idaho Conservation League and Trout Unlimited are voting members of the coalition.
"It's very important that the Forest Service adhere to the law," said Jonathan Oppenheimer of the Idaho Conservation League.
He said the group as a coalition member is interested in finding common ground to achieve environmental goals on the Payette National Forest while also allowing for economic development.
Garrity said his group had never filed a lawsuit on such a large project.
"This was a huge timber project in an already heavily-logged forest," he said. "We thought this was going to be very environmentally destructive, so we're glad it stopped."
He said the Forest Service plan reduced the forest canopy — the amount of overhead forest.
"Thick forests with heavy canopy are required by a lot of old-growth dependent species, like the northern goshawk," he said. "Because there's not that much old growth left, old-growth dependent species are also declining."
The appeals court upheld the lower court's ruling that the Payette National Forest's plan for roads in the project adhered to environmental laws. That plan calls for decommissioning about 68 miles (110 kilometers) of roads and designating about 400 miles (645 kilometers) of roads for maintenance or improvement.