SALEM — A federal appeals court has rejected an environmentalist challenge to a 2,000-acre forest thinning project along 11 miles of the Lostine River in Northeast Oregon.

The 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals has upheld an earlier ruling that determined the U.S. Forest Service complied with environmental laws in authorizing the project.

The agency didn’t violate the Healthy Forest Restoration Act by concluding that “extraordinary circumstances” did not justify an environmental study of the thinning project, which is aimed at reducing wildfire risks, according to the 9th Circuit.

The Forest Service properly analyzed “resource conditions” along the river in the Wallowa-Whitman National Forest in deciding the project was eligible for a “categorical exclusion” from such environmental reviews, the 9th Circuit said.

“The Forest Service rationally concluded the Lostine Project had no effect, no adverse effect, likely no adverse effect, or a neutral or beneficial effect on each applicable ‘resource condition,’” the ruling said.

Likewise, the thinning project is consistent with the land and resource management plan for the national forest, the ruling said. “The Forest Service reasonably interpreted its plan, adhered to its relevant processes, documented its findings, and made rational conclusions based on those findings.”

Contrary to allegations by the environmental plaintiffs, the Greater Hells Canyon Council and Oregon Wild, the agency’s “collaborative process” for planning the project was sufficient and didn’t require a formal group, the 9th Circuit said.

The Forest Service followed guidelines requiring the plan to “involve relevant stakeholders” and to use an “open, inclusive and transparent process,” the ruling said.

Capital Press was unable to reach representatives of the environment groups for comment as of press time.

Wallowa County, which intervened in the litigation to defend the project, is glad the 9th Circuit has agreed the thinning should proceed, said Caroline Lobdell, executive director of the Western Resources Legal Center, which represented the local government.

The project is in the “wildland-urban interface,” so it’s needed to protect local residents, tourists and emergency responders in the region, Lobdell said.

The county also argued that thinning will support the economic stability of the area’s forest products industry, such as a 23-employee firewood processor that depends on the project for wood.

“Economic development is always important for rural counties,” Lobdell said.

The American Forest Resource Council, a timber industry group that tracked the case, said the 9th Circuit ruling is a win for reducing fuels and improving forest health.

“This is really a high risk area for wildfire. The focus of the project is really community protection,” said Lawson Fite, an attorney with AFRC.

It’s also heartening that the 9th Circuit found the project didn’t adversely affect sensitive resources and wasn’t subject to the narrow definition of “collaborative process” favored by environmental groups, he said.

“This project is a great example of listening to the community,” Fite said.

Though the 9th Circuit’s ruling doesn’t set a binding legal precedent, it does show that federal courts are starting to understand the need for management to control fire, disease and pest risk, as called for under the Healthy Forest Restoration Act, he said.

“They’re giving the Forest Service the appropriate amount of deference to implement the statute,” Fite said.

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