As of Thursday, July 9, 2015
LOWELL – A lawsuit over the use of a road near Swiftwater Bridge continued at warp speed last week, with the Forest Service, the Idaho Department of Lands (IDL), and Idaho Rivers United (IRU) all filing arguments as to whether or not the court should put a state-land timber sale on hold.
At stake according to IRU and landowners Morgan and Olga Wright are the Selway River’s “wild and scenic” values, as well as a large amount of log truck traffic on Road 652, which they claim is not a public road.
According to IDL, local timber business Idaho Forest Group (IFG) estimates the $2.5 million Selway Salvage timber sale could lose $850,000 of its value if work does not begin quickly – which could cut into the $2 million state’s schools endowment IDL estimated the trust otherwise stands to gain. That’s because rot could claim $550,000 from Grand fir stands and up to $300,000 from cedar stands, which were struck by last year’s Johnson Bar fire.
The lawsuit has already pushed back work on the sale from a July 6 start to a July 13 start. That first phase of work is contracted to be done by Debco Inc., according to a filing by IFG’s Bill Higgins, and the start of timber harvest would follow as early as Aug. 13. But if the work is delayed by the injunction IRU seeks, that would jeopardize the road construction, according to Higgins.
“If we cannot start the road work in the next couple of weeks we risk losing Debco to other jobs,” Higgins explained in a court filing. “This will essentially delay the sale an entire year and the timber deterioration will be too great to justify the road construction cost and harvest of the sale with significantly diminished value. Our logging costs will also be substantially increased because they must be spread over far less volume.”
According to the Forest Service, the part of Road 652 that the log trucks would use is a public road, so IDL needs no special permission from any federal agency to use it.
“Plaintiffs seek to have this court compel the Forest Service to regulate IDL’s activities solely because they disagree with how IDL is managing State land,” the Forest Service argued. Moose Creek Ranger Joe Hudson “determined that IDL did not require special use authorization to use the Forest Service managed portions of Road 652 because those portions are available, passable by four-wheel standard passenger cars, and open to the general public.”
To that, IRU and the Wrights said: The Forest Service and IDL “do not dispute plaintiffs’ showing that Forest Road 652 is mostly an unimproved dirt track which is gated and locked past IDL’s property, and does not qualify as a “public road” under the Forest Service Manual. They ask the court to focus instead on the 740-foot section that crosses the Wrights’ property, claiming that this portion – and this portion only – is a “public road” because it is a gravel surface and is subject to the 1937 easement. [They] ignore the fact that the Forest Service holds a virtually identical old easement across the private land on the other side of IDL’s land, yet has allowed the road there to be gated and locked. The Forest Service never explains why these two sections of Road 652 are now characterized and treated so differently. And since the reason Road 652 is deemed a ‘forest road’ is because it provides access to national forest lands, Road 652 cannot just be dissected into small sections… to suit their current purposes.”
The environmentalist plaintiffs “anticipate moving for summary judgment rapidly, with the expectation that the case can be speedily resolved on the merits within a few weeks” but are also asking the court to require the Forest Service to perform a “thorough analysis under NEPA [the National Environmental Policy Act] and the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act before determining whether to issue a special use permit to IDL.”
Recently, Forest Service NEPA analysis of complicated projects often takes two to three years to complete, and controversial projects – any one that requires an environmental impact statement – may take even longer.