Snow dusts the treeline near Heather Lake Trailhead in the area of a disputed logging project on Tuesday, April 11, 2023, outside Verlot, Washington. (Ryan Berry / The Herald)

Snow dusts the treeline near Heather Lake Trailhead in the area of a disputed logging project on Tuesday, April 11, 2023, outside Verlot, Washington. (Ryan Berry / The Herald)

Forest Service wins Stillaguamish logging suit over conservation group

The 9th Circuit upheld a ruling allowing timber companies to log scattered plots east of Verlot. It’ll also bring trailhead updates.

VERLOT — Engorged with recent rainfall and snowmelt, it is not hard to imagine the South Fork of the Stillaguamish River as it was 100 years ago, filled with logs headed downstream to mills in Granite Falls and elsewhere.

By 1893, most logjams in the river were removed, which damaged the ecosystem, especially aquatic habitat. By 1940, large portions of the drainage of the river had been clearcut in what is now the Mt. Baker-Snoqualmie National Forest.

Some logging companies did reseed areas, but their efforts eventually became an issue. The forest is now too thick, with far more foliage per acre than a comparable swath of old growth.

In 2016, the U.S. Forest Service embarked on a project to thin trees, arguing science supports this type of action, both for fire and forest health reasons. Nearly seven years later, after appeals that made it to the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals, the project is set to remove some second-growth timber near Mount Pilchuck.

The South Fork Stillaguamish Vegetation Management project will commercially harvest from 2,000 to 3,300 acres of timber in scattered plots in the river’s drainage. About 1,000 more acres are slated for non-commercial thinning.

Hampton Lumber Mills and Skagit Log and Construction hold multiple contracts with the Forest Service for the harvest.

The Forest Service did not respond to a Herald reporter’s request for comment.

There will be some public recreation benefits to the project. The Heather Lake trailhead on the rough road to Mount Pilchuck will increase its parking lot to accommodate 75 cars, up from 25. Farther up the Mountain Loop, both the Sunrise Mine trailhead — the main access point to Vesper Peak — and the Walt Bailey trailhead are also slated for improvements.

In Forest Service documents, it was noted these are high-traffic areas in the summer and the changes will make them safer for visitors.

Around 15 months after the Darrington Ranger District approved the project in its Final Environmental Assessment, the North Cascades Conservation Council, an environmental group, filed a complaint in U.S. District Court to stop the tree-thinning in 2020.

The conservation group said in a statement to The Daily Herald:

“We knew going in that this appeal would be a difficult challenge, but we felt that we had to make every effort to halt the Forest Service, read, logging service, which is really what they are, to halt their logging proclivities. Winning environmental battles is an uphill battle, since the courts tend to defer to the affected agencies. … We felt that our laws are all that we have to try and protect a diminishing and irreplaceable legacy resource.”

The South Fork Stillaguamish River flows out of Mount Baker-Snoqualmie National Forest on Tuesday, April 11, 2023, outside Verlot, Washington. (Ryan Berry / The Herald)

The South Fork Stillaguamish River flows out of Mount Baker-Snoqualmie National Forest on Tuesday, April 11, 2023, outside Verlot, Washington. (Ryan Berry / The Herald)

An attorney for the group, David Bricklin, said the Forest Service is “creating huge adverse impacts and not really coming to grips with those adverse impacts.” He said he was disappointed in the decision from the three-judge panel. The group said they will not appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court.

The American Forest Resource Council, a pro-timber industry lobbying group, added themselves to the suit early in the case, representing the forestry companies who are contracted with the Forest Service.

U.S. District Court Judge David Estudillo ruled in favor of the defendants, and in late March of this year, the 9th Circuit affirmed the decision. In other words, the project will move forward.

The complaint had accused the Forest Service of violating the National Environmental Policy Act, a landmark U.S. environmental law signed in 1970. Conservationists also accused the Forest Service of failing to follow the 1990 Mt. Baker-Snoqualmie National Forest Plan and the 1994 Northwest Forest Management Plan, calling the project “arbitrary and capricious.”

The suit claimed the thinning would have “significant adverse impacts to threatened species” and that the Forest Service documentation for this project “fails to adequately disclose and analyze the environmental impacts of the Project as required by the NEPA.”

The NCCC felt the Forest Service was in violation of the law because an Environmental Impact Statement should have been prepared, in addition to an Environmental Assessment. The government successfully argued this was not required.

The Forest Service does mention several endangered species in the area, with three — bull trout, marbled murrelet and Northern spotted owl — mentioned in Forest Service documents.

The environmental assessment states “the project is likely to adversely affect but not likely to jeopardize the continued existence” of those species. It then goes on to explain plans to minimize risk to both species and their habitats. For example, water barriers such as culverts will be replaced or removed to improve habitat for fish and other aquatic species in 11 locations.

The Forest Service said thinning trees will actually improve habitat for birds, trout and snails. In court, it backed the plan of action up with over 20,000 pages of policies, books and practices that the government entered into the court record.

The cutting will happen in “second growth stands,” where trees were seeded or replanted following a harvest of old growth timber. The trees, the agency says, are too close together to promote healthy forest habitat, which is why the project is being done in the first place.

None of the trees to be removed are older than 80 years old. Most will be between 30 and 70 years old, the Final Environmental Assessment said.

“One primary reason we opposed a massive collection of timber sales is that the areas are designated late successional reserve and riparian reserves, both of which are land use classifications intended to protect old growth, habitat and water quality, respectively,” the NCCC said in a statement. “Commercial logging is generally prohibited in these areas for that reason, but the Forest Service tries to get around this by claiming that the logging the area will create better habitat. Unfortunately for them, the science doesn’t support that contention.”

Snow and clouds shroud the forest around Heather Lake Trailhead in the area of a disputed logging project on Tuesday, April 11, 2023, outside Verlot, Washington. (Ryan Berry / The Herald)

Snow and clouds shroud the forest around Heather Lake Trailhead in the area of a disputed logging project on Tuesday, April 11, 2023, outside Verlot, Washington. (Ryan Berry / The Herald)

The wood has the potential to be lucrative. Skagit Log has a contract with the Forest Service for up to 58,197 tons of lumber on 413.2 acres. The company will pay the Forest Service $10.50 per ton. Linc Torgerson, the owner of Skagit Log, said they could make around $80 per ton of lumber before costs to his company are considered.

If Skagit Log pulls out its maximum allotted tonnage, it could be worth around $5 million. The contract is set to expire in 2024. Torgerson said he hopes work can be finished within this season.

“In what I do, I take a lot of pride in,” Torgerson said.

Hampton Tree Farms has two timber sale contracts related to the lawsuit with the Forest Service for work in the National Forest. In one contract, the company will pay the Forest Service $8.97 per ton of lumber, while in the other they will pay $16.40 per ton. They are paying $1.1 million to the Forest Service for the right to log the forest.

According to the contract, Hampton Tree Farms will pay the Forest Service $456,300 for rights to log the area. That contract runs through 2026. Assuming the same math as Skagit Log, that timber contract could also be worth millions.

The environmental group also took issue with the timeliness of temporary roads being removed. The 1994 Northwest Forest Management Plan dictates that new forest roads should not be built without first decommissioning old roads, meaning there is a cap on road mileage in the National Forest.

The project will use 57 miles of open Forest Service roads. It will also use 29 miles of closed roads, which will be closed again when the project is completed. Another 32 miles of temporary roads will be used, 5 miles of which are new.

A separate 16.8 miles of “non-driveable” roads will be decommissioned during the project and another 1.8 miles of current road will be converted to trails. The Forest Service is paying Skagit Log just shy of $1 million for road work.

“The Court does not need the Forest Service to produce some baseline number of roads in the Project area in order for the Court to confirm that the result of the Project will be no net increase in road mileage,” the USFS response reads.

The crux of the NCCC’s argument rests on whether decommissioned roads are truly left to nature.

Jordan Hansen: 425-339-3046; jordan.hansen@soundpublishing.com; Twitter: @jordyhansen.

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