BOISE (CN) - The Nez Perce Tribe sued the federal government over a "massive" timber project they say endangers fish and elk in the National Forest that bears the tribe's name.
The U.S. Forest Service issued a final decision on Dec. 17, 2015, authorizing logging on 10,500 acres of a 43,000-acre project area in the Nez Perce-Clearwater National Forest.
The Clear Creek Integrated Restoration Project will produce 85 million board feet of timber, 2,000 jobs, $60 million in "community harvest income" and another $9 million in federal income tax, according to the federal plan.
The tribe doesn't like it.
"Since time immemorial, Nez Perce Tribal members have fished and hunted elk in the Clear Creek watershed," they say in the July 2 federal complaint. "The embattled fish and elk populations in this watershed are important treaty-reserved tribal resources. The tribe also co-manages the Kooskia National Fish Hatchery, which draws the bulk of its water from the Clear Creek watershed. The hatchery is important to mitigate the harms to subsistence and sport fishing that have been caused by water developments in the Columbia River Basin."
The 4-million-acre Nez Perce-Clearwater National Forest in north central Idaho, below the Panhandle, embraces the dry, rugged canyons of the Salmon River, moist cedar forests of the Selway drainage and the rolling uplands of the state's Palouse region.
The Nez Perce were the largest tribe the Lewis and Clark Expedition met between the Missouri River and the Pacific Coast. Today about 4,000 Nez Perce live on the 12,000-square-mile reservation, most of whose residents are white.
Anglos today chiefly remember the Nez Perce, if at all, for Chief Joseph, who led the tribe in a heroic, 1,200-mile retreat in 1877 that ended just short of Canada, where they hoped to seek political asylum. It was one of the first acts of Indian resistance that received favorable coverage in the U.S. press.
The Nez Perce say sediment from the cleared hillsides will hurt their Kooskia Fish Hatchery on Clear Creek, just upstream of its confluence with the Middle Fork Clearwater and 10 miles downstream from the project boundary.
They say the defendant U.S. Forest Service and National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration underestimated the width and length of roads needed to haul the timber from the area.
They say the NOAA's biological opinion for the project is "riddled" with errors, based on outdated scientific and commercial data, and inadequate analysis of risks to fish.
"Excessive sediment devastates fish," the complaint states. "The Forest Service purported to analyze the sediment impacts of its proposed action in the Clear Creek drainage, but its sediment analysis was grotesquely inadequate."
Also inadequate, the tribe says, is the Forest Service's analysis of the effect on elk. "Inexplicably, the Forest Service relied on the Leege guidelines in conducting its elk assessment for the Clear Creek Project," the complaint states. "This contravened the best available science and the Forest's own Forest Plan. The decision was unlawful."
The Leege guidelines came from a 1984 Forest Service model. They were replaced in 1997 by the Forest Service's Servheen model, to analyze elk vulnerability, but the Forest Service used its old model to analyze the logging, according to the complaint.
"The Tribe is convinced ... that its core concerns remain unaddressed and that the project - and the Forest [Service]'s and NOAA Fisheries' analysis of the project - is deficient in crucial respects. Having exhausted its administrative remedies, the Tribe is left with no choice but to sue. ...
"The Forest [Service] failed to take the requisite 'hard look' at the project's impacts to the environment, to use the best available science in its analysis of the project, and to notify the public of incomplete and inadequate information used in the analysis."
The tribe says the government violated the Administrative Procedures Act, the National Environmental Policy Act, the National Forest Management Act and the Endangered Species Act.
The tribe's attorneys Amanda Wright Rogerson and David Cummings are out of the office until July 11 and were not available for comment Wednesday.
Forest Service spokeswoman Babete Anderson said the agency does not comment on active litigation.
The tribe asks the court to enjoin the timber project until the defendants conduct a proper analysis of "the project's actual impact" on spawning habitat and elk habitat. They also seek costs, expenses and attorneys' fees under the Equal Access to Justice Act.
Rogerson and Cummings are with the Nez Perce Tribe Office of Legal Counsel, in Lapwai.
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