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For Immediate Release:  Monday, December 20, 2021

Contacts:

John Robison, Public Lands Director, Idaho Conservation League, (208) 345-6933 x213
Randy Fox, Conservation Associate, Idaho Conservation League, (208) 345-6933 x510
Bryan Hurlbutt, Staff Attorney, Advocates for the West, (208) 342-7024 x206

BOISE – The Idaho Conservation League (ICL) today filed a lawsuit in federal court against the U.S. Forest Service for failing to comply with environmental laws when it approved the 20-year “Sage Hen Integrated Forest Restoration Project.”

The project includes a suite of watershed restoration activities, logging, thinning, and prescribed fire on 68,000-acres of public lands in the Boise National Forest in and around the popular Sage Hen Reservoir in Idaho’s West Mountains. The project could serve as a model for the next generation of forest restoration projects in Idaho and beyond. But, according to the lawsuit, after careful initial planning, the Forest Service switched gears and rushed the project to approval, cutting out the public and placing the area’s plants, fish, and wildlife at risk.

Randy Fox, ICL’s West Central Idaho conservation associate, said, “As a member of the Boise Forest Coalition, ICL was involved in the early development of the Sage Hen Project. ICL remains committed to forest restoration, but the process and outcome for Sage Hen were deeply flawed.” Fox added, “Make no mistake, the Idaho Conservation League wants the Forest Service to succeed. We have invested years in this project. But we need to correct the course.”

The Forest Service announced the project in April 2020, and in a highly unusual move for such a large and transformative project, the agency prepared an abbreviated  Environmental Assessment rather than a more rigorous and detailed Environmental Impact Statement (EIS), a decision ICL and others opposed. The Forest Service approved the project just a year later, in April 2021.

“The law requires the Forest Service to look before it leaps when it comes to major projects like this one,” said Bryan Hurlbutt, Staff Attorney at Advocates for the West, who represents ICL in the lawsuit. “The Forest Service didn’t do that here. Instead of crafting a carefully-planned project with widespread support, minimal short-term impacts, and maximum long-term benefits, Sage Hen threatens serious environmental harm, without public buy-in, and all for uncertain benefit. This is particularly true for highly imperiled native bull trout, which are barely hanging on in the project area.”

In addition to the Forest Service, ICL’s lawsuit also names the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service as a defendant for failing to protect bull trout, a species listed as “threatened” under the Endangered Species Act due to significant population declines and ongoing threats. The isolated bull trout populations in the Sage Hen area are already on the decline and are among the most susceptible of all bull trout in the U.S. to harm and habitat loss from climate change.

ICL’s lawsuit has three objectives, each of which would restart the project and provide for additional public involvement and planning. First, ICL is urging the Court to order a more careful analysis, using an EIS to involve the public and conduct a detailed review of the project and its likely environmental impacts. Second, ICL is asking the Court to require the Forest Service to develop protective measures to ensure logging and road work do not unduly harm bull trout, sensitive plants, and wildlife. Third, ICL is urging the Court to order the Forest Service to consider a variety of alternatives to its currently narrow proposal, which could include  additional forest and watershed restoration activities along with additional recreation opportunities and needed improvements.

“The Sage Hen Project was meant to be a ‘flagship’ integrated restoration project, highlighting the important ‘All Hands, All Lands’ approach to forest restoration,” said John Robison, ICL’s Public Lands Director. “With the fresh start we are asking for, it still could be,” Robison added. “The recent infrastructure bill could bring millions of dollars to Idaho for forest restoration projects. This is great news, but not if the Sage Hen Project serves as the example for these projects. The current Sage Hen Project sets the precedent of distancing the public from decisions affecting public lands. Idahoans have a track record of working together to respond to climate change, reduce wildfire risk, enhance recreation opportunities, and improve forest health. The Sage Hen Project should embody this approach.”

Here’s ICL’s Public Lands Director, John Robison, quickly explaining how we get the project back on track (video):

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Founded in 1973, ICL is Idaho’s largest state-based conservation group. ICL works hard to keep Idaho’s public lands in public hands. ICL participates in collaborative projects across the state to protect and restore our forests, rangelands and watersheds and the fish, wildlife, plants and communities that depend on them.

Advocates for the West is a non-profit, public interest environmental law firm headquartered in Boise, Idaho, that works to defend public lands, fish, and wildlife throughout the American West.