Native Ecosystem Council v. Weldon et al
OPINION and ORDER denying 25 Motion for Summary Judgment; granting 29 Motion for Summary Judgment. IT IS FURTHER ORDERED that the Clerk of Court is directed to enter judgment against the plaintiff and in favor of the defendants and close this case. Signed by Judge Donald W. Molloy on 2/5/2017. (NOS) (Modified to correct signature date.) (NOS).
IN THE UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT
FOR THE DISTRICT OF MONTANA
FEB 0 6 2017
Clerk, U.S. District Court
District Of Montana
NATIVE ECOSYSTEMS COUNCIL,
LESLIE WELDON, in her official
capacity as Regional Forester of
Region One U.S. Forest Service;
UNITED STATES FOREST
SERVICE, an agency of the United
States; and MARY ERICKSON, in her
official capacity as Supervisor of the
Custer National Forest,
Plaintiff Native Ecosystems Council ("Native Ecosystems") seeks injunctive
and declaratory relief against Defendants LeAnne Martin, Regional Forester of
Region One of the United States Forest Service, Mary Erickson, Supervisor of the
Custer National Forest, and the United States Forest Service (collectively "the
Forest Service") on the grounds the Forest Service failed to comply with the
National Environmental Policy Act ("NEPA") and the National Forest
Management Act ("NFMA") when it approved the North Whitetail Post Fire
Project Salvage Sale ("Whitetail Project") in the Custer National Forest. Contrary
to Native Ecosystems' assertions, the Forest Service met its statutory obligations.
During the 2012 fire season, lightning ignited multiple wildfires that burned
312,418 acres around Ashland in southeastern Montana, including 143,200 on the
Ashland Ranger District. 1 AR8855. The largest fire was the Ash Creek Fire,
which burned 249,562 acres, 88,465 acres in the Ashland Ranger District. Id. The
Ash Creek Fire burned across the Whitetail Project area as a mixed severity fire.
Id. Areas that burned at moderate to high intensity resulted in extensive mortality
of ponderosa pine, and the ponderosa pine in the northern and southern portions of
the Project area is predominantly dead. Id. In contrast, the middle Project area
burned at a "low to moderate intensity." AR8856. In 2014, the Forest Service
completed the Ashland Post Fire Landscape Assessment to assess current
conditions, trends, and management practices on the post-fire landscape. AR8855.
The Assessment identified future management opportunities to aid in ecosystem
restoration and to improve or maintain ecosystem resilience. AR8858. It did not
discuss the Whitetail Project. See AR7549-7692.
The Ashland Ranger District is comprised of 436,546 acres of National Forest System
Following the 2012 fire, the Forest Service implemented three salvage sales
in the vicinity: (1) in 2013, the Ashland Roadside Hazard Tree Abatement &
Removal Projects, which cumulatively removed fire-damaged trees from 270
acres, AR12057-58, 12080-81; (2) in 2015, the Phoenix Salvage Sale, which
permitted the harvest of up to 250 acres, AR12101-118; and (3) in 2016, the
Whitetail Project, which permitted the harvest of up to 250 acres, AR8855-98.
These sales were, at least in part, categorically excluded from NEPA review
pursuant to 36 C.F.R. § 220.6(e)(13) ("Category 13"), which provides an
exclusion for the "salvage of dead and/or dying trees not to exceed 250 acres [and]
requiring no more than Yi mile of temporary road construction."
On April 29, 2016, a Scoping Notice was issued for the Whitetail Project. 2
See AROOl 1-0017; see also AROOOl-04. And, on July 8, 2016, the Forest Service
issued a Decision Memo authorizing the Project. AR8860, 8898. The Project
proposes the cutting of 250 acres spread across a 5,288-acre area in the northern
portion of the Ashland Ranger District. AR8859; see also AR8897-98 (mapping
individual salvage harvest units). The Project is expected to last no more than two
consecutive years, AR8874, and is purported to "[r]estore moderately to severely
That Notice replaced one issued on January 27, 2016, that proposed two projects.
AROOO 1. This litigation involves only the Whitetail Project.
burned areas to reduce long term downed fuel accumulations and re-establish
forest cover," and allow "[s]alvage up to 250 acres of ponderosa pine that were
killed by the Ash Creek Fire to reduce downed fuel accumulations and provide
timber projects to help support local communities," AR8859-60.
Summary judgment is appropriate if"there is no genuine issue as to any
material fact and the movant is entitled to judgment as a matter of law." Fed. R.
Civ. P. 56(a). Judicial review of agency actions under NEPA and NFMA is
governed by the Administrative Procedures Act ("APA"), 5 U.S.C. §§ 706 et seq.
See Sierra Forest Legacy v. Sherman, 646 F.3d 1161, 1176 (9th Cir. 2011). Under
the AP A, a "reviewing court shall ... hold unlawful and set aside agency action,
findings, and conclusions found to be ... arbitrary, capricious, an abuse of
discretion, or otherwise not in accordance with the law." 5 U.S.C. § 706(2)(A).
The scope of review is narrow, and a court should "not  substitute its judgment
for that of the agency." Motor Vehicle Mfrs. Ass 'n of US., Inc. v. State Farm Mut.
Auto. Ins. Co., 463 U.S. 29, 43 (1983). A decision is arbitrary or capricious:
only if the agency relied on factors Congress did not intend it to
consider, entirely failed to consider an important aspect of the problem,
or offered an explanation that runs counter to the evidence before the
agency or is so implausible that it could not be ascribed to a difference
in view or the product of agency expertise.
Gardner v. U.S. Bureau ofLand Mgmt., 638 F.3d 1217, 1224 (9th Cir. 2011)
(quoting Lands Council v. McNair, 537 F.3d 981, 987 (9th Cir. 2008) (en bane)).
An agency's actions are valid if it "considered the relevant factors and articulated
a rational connection between the facts found and the choices made." Id. (internal
quotation marks omitted).
According to Native Ecosystems, the Forest Service's approval of the
Whitetail Project represents "death-by-a-thousand categorically excluded salvage
sales." (Doc. 34 at 6.) Native Ecosystems insists that the Forest Service has
violated its statutory mandate by improperly segmenting salvage sales and has
been living the "big lie" of grossly exaggerating the abundance of suitable habitat
for the black-backed woodpecker and minimizing the impact of those salvage
sales. (Id. at 16-17.) While raising important questions about the application of
categorical exclusions to temporally and geographically similar projects, Native
Ecosystems' concerns are not borne out by the facts here. The Forest Service's
decision to proceed under Category 13 was neither arbitrary nor capricious.
Due to Native Ecosystems' ubiquitous reliance on information presented in
extra-record materials, that issue is addressed first.
Courts reviewing agency action under the APA must generally limit their
review to the administrative record on which the agency based the challenged
decision. Fence Creek Cattle Co. v. US. Forest Serv., 602 F.3d 1125, 1131 (9th
Cir. 2010). Limiting a court's review to the administrative record "ensures that the
reviewing court affords sufficient deference to the agency's action. The APA
gives an agency substantial discretion 'to rely on the reasonable opinions of its
own qualified experts even if, as an original matter, a court might find contrary
view more persuasive."' San Luis & Delta-Mendota Water Auth. v. Locke, 776
F.3d 971, 992 (9th Cir. 2014) (quoting Marsh v. Or. Natural Resource Council,
490 U.S. 360, 378 (1989)). Here, Native Ecosystems submitted two extra-record
expert declarations by Chad Hanson regarding the black-backed woodpecker.
(Docs. 28, 35.) Extra-record declarations by scientists are of heightened concern
as they implicate the deference due the agency and essentially lead to de novo
review of the agency's action rather than the more deferential review required by
the APA. Asarco, Inc. v. E.P.A., 616 F.2d 1153, 1160 (9th Cir. 1980).
Nevertheless, courts can consider extra-record evidence in four narrowly
construed circumstances: if"(l) supplementation is necessary to determine ifthe
agency has considered all factors and explained its decision; (2) the agency relied
on documents not in the record; (3) supplementation is needed to explain technical
terms or complex subjects; or (4) plaintiffs have shown bad faith on the part of the
agency." Fence Creek Cattle Co., 602 F .3 d at 1131. While the first and third
exceptions are implicated here, Hanson's declarations fail to meet the exception
Invoking the third exception, Native Ecosystems explains that parties are
permitted to submit expert opinions for the purpose of explaining technical terms
or complex subject matter presented in the scientific documents of the
administrative record. (Doc. 34 at 14 (citing Inland Empire Public Lands Council
v. Glickman, 88 F.3d 697, 703-04 (9th Cir. 1996)). Native Ecosystems does not,
however, explain how Hanson's declarations perform that limited function.
Rather, the declarations go beyond mere explanation and instead challenge the
underlying science and data used by the agency. They may not be considered
pursuant to this exception. See Asarco, 616 F.2d at 1159 (allowing explanation so
long as it contains "no new rationalizations").
Alternatively, Native Ecosystems argues that the declarations are necessary
to determine whether the agency considered all relevant factors or failed to
consider an important aspect of the problem, insisting "it is not possible to
Native Ecosystems also cites out-of-record authorities in its introductory material. (See
Doc. 34 at 4-6.) Those prefatory assertions are not relevant to this action and are not considered.
demonstrate what an agency failed to consider by being tethered to what they did
consider." (Doc. 34 at 12.) However, instead of merely asking the Court to
review the declarations to show that the agency failed to consider a relevant factor,
Native Ecosystems asks the Court to use the declarations as a basis for challenging
the wisdom and/or correctness of the Forest Service's scientific analysis. To do so
would be improper:
Although the relevant factors exception permits a district court to
consider extra-record evidence to develop a background against which
it can evaluate the integrity of the agency's analysis, the exception does
not permit district courts to use extra-record evidence to judge the
wisdom of the agency's action. This distinction is a fine, but important,
one. Reviewing courts may admit evidence under this exception only
to help the court understand whether the agency complied with the
APA's requirement that the agency's decision be neither arbitrary nor
capricious. But reviewing courts may not look to this evidence as a
basis for questioning the agency's scientific analyses or conclusions.
San Luis, 776 F.3d at 993 (internal citations omitted) (emphasis added). Hanson's
declarations criticize the science underlying the Forest Service's cumulative
effects analysis. They do not support the proposition that the agency failed to
consider relevant factors, but rather that its consideration of those factors was
scientifically unsound. That is exactly the type of extra-record material this Court
is not allowed to consider and it will not be considered here.
The Forest Service also filed two expert declarations in support of its
scientific analysis, authored by William Stasey. (See Docs. 31, 37.) Insofar as
Stasey's declarations explain technical or complex terms, they may be considered.
Inland Empire, 88 F.3d at 703-04. Analysis beyond that in the agency's decisionmaking record, however, is not considered. San Luis, 776 F.3d at 993; Asarco,
616 F.2d at 1159. Regardless, the Administrative Record on its own is adequate to
support the agency's decision here.
NEPA is a procedural statute that does not "mandate particular results, but
simply provides the necessary process to ensure that federal agencies take a hard
look at the environmental consequences of their actions." Neighbors of Cuddy
Mtn. v. Alexander, 303 F .3d 1059, 1070 (9th Cir. 2002) (internal quotation marks
omitted). NEPA provides that all federal agencies shall prepare, for every major
federal action significantly affecting the quality of the human environment, an
environmental impact statement ("EIS") that addresses, inter alia, the
environmental impact of the proposed action and potential alternative actions. 42
U.S.C. § 4332(C). Federal agencies may prepare an environmental assessment
("EA") to determine whether an EIS is required. 40 C.F.R. § 1508.9.
Alternatively, an agency may invoke a "categorical exclusion" to NEPA if
an action falls within "a category of actions which do not individually or
cumulatively have a significant effect on the human environment." 40 C.F.R.
§ 1508.4. An agency must first "determine the scope of the issues to be addressed
and identify the significant issues related to a proposed action." 40 C.F.R.
§ 1501.7; Sierra Club v. Bosworth, 510 F.3d 1016, 1026 (9th Cir. 2007). When an
agency decides to proceed under a categorical exclusion, it is required to
adequately explain its decision, and ensure "extraordinary circumstances" do not
exist in which a normally excluded action may have significant environmental
effects. Alaska Ctr.for Env'tv. U.S. ForestServ., 189 F.3d 851, 853-54 (9th Cir.
1999); 40 C.F.R. § 1508.4.
Here, the Forest Service categorically excluded the Whitetail Project under
36 C.F.R. § 220.6(a), which permits the exclusion of a proposed action "from
further analysis and documentation in an EIS or EA only if there are no
extraordinary circumstances related to the proposed action" and the action falls
within one of a number of enumerated categories. AR8885-86. The Forest
Service concluded the Whitetail Project fell within 36 C.F.R. § 220.6(e)(13)
("Category 13"), which provides a categorical exclusion for the "salvage of dead
and/or dying trees not to exceed 250 acres [and] requiring no more than Yi mile of
temporary road construction." AR8886. Native Ecosystems insists an EA was
necessary, arguing first that the Forest Service improperly segmented salvage sales
to avoid preparing an EA, and second, that the Project will have significant
cumulative effects on the black-backed woodpecker.
Native Ecosystems first argues that the Forest Service improperly
segmented the salvage sales to avoid preparing an EA, and that is was arbitrary
and capricious not to consider the 2013 roadside salvage, the 2015 Phoenix
Project, and the Whitetail Project as connected, cumulative, or similar actions. 4
See 40 C.F.R. § 1508.25.
The determination of whether projects are distinct is a fact question
implicating agency expertise. Conservation Congr. v. US. Forest Serv., 2013 WL
2457481, at *11 (E.D. Cal. June 6, 2013); see also Kleppe v. Sierra Club, 427 U.S.
390, 414 (1976). The agency's discretion is limited pursuant to NEPA's
implementing regulations, however, which provide that "[p]roposals or parts of
proposals which are related to each other closely enough to be, in effect, a single
course of action, shall be evaluated in a single impact statement." 40 C.F.R.
§ 1502.4(a). And, in determining the scope for an EIS, agencies are required to
consider three types of actions: "connected actions," "cumulative actions," and
Native Ecosystems' opening brief addresses only "similar" actions, while its
response/reply argues "cumulative" or "connected" actions.
"similar actions." 40 C.F.R. § 1508.25.
An action is "connected" if it automatically triggers other actions which
may require an EIS, if it cannot or will not proceed unless other actions are taken
previously or simultaneously, or if it is an interdependent part of a larger action
upon which it depends for its justification. 40 C.F.R. § 1508.25(a)(l). Native
Ecosystems makes no showing that any of these requirements are met here. Nor
does the record show an interdependence between the projects. An action is
"cumulative" if, when viewed with the other proposed impacts, it has cumulatively
significant impacts. 40 C.F.R. § 1508.25(a)(2). Here, the Forest Service
determined that cumulative impacts were not significant because, inter alia, the
projects affected less than 2% of highly suitable black-backed woodpecker habitat
within the 90-kilometer cumulative effects area. AR8878-79, 2212-13. The
adequacy of that analysis is affirmed below. Finally, an action is "similar" if
"when viewed with other reasonably foreseeable or proposed agency actions [it]
ha[ s] similarities that provide a basis for evaluating the environmental
consequences together, such as common timing or geography." 40 C.F.R.
§ 1508.25(a)(3). While the salvage projects likely meet this definition, this
regulation provides that an agency "may wish to analyze these actions in the same
impact statement," and only "should do so" if it is the best way to adequately
assess the combined impacts. Id. (emphasis added); see Klamath-Siskiyou
Wild/ands Ctr. v. Bureau ofLand Mgmt., 387 F.3d 989, 1001 (9th Cir. 2004)
(holding that for "similar" actions, as opposed to "connected" or "cumulative"
actions, "an agency should be accorded more deference in deciding whether to
analyze such actions together). Here, the Forest Service determined independent
project analyses was preferred. It is not apparent that it acted arbitrarily in doing
so. Alaska Ctr.for Env't, 189 F.3d at 858 n.5; Klamath-Siskiyou Wildlands Ctr.,
387 F.3d at 1001 ("[W]e are unable to conclude that analyzing the projects
together is necessarily the 'best way' to evaluate them. More precisely, we cannot
say that the [agency] acted arbitrarily in thinking otherwise.").
Native Ecosystems insists that the Ninth Circuit's opinion in Blue
Mountains Diversity Project v. Blackwood, 161F.3d1208 (9th Cir. 1996),
requires the salvage projects to be considered together. In Blue Mountains, the
Forest Service approved multiple salvage logging projects in the same area
without completing an EIS. The Ninth Circuit concluded the EA inadequately
addressed cumulative impacts, and that the agency was required evaluate the
impacts of the sales in a single EIS. 161 F.3d at 1215. The court focused on the
fact that the sales were "reasonably foreseeable," "were developed as part of a
comprehensive forest recovery strategy," and the estimated sale quantities and
timelines were set prior to the completion of the EA. Id.
Unlike the situation in Blue Mountains, the record supports the Forest
Service's position that the Whitetail Project was not reasonably foreseeable at the
time of the 2013 and 2015 salvage projects, or the creation of the 2014 Ashland
Post Fire Landscape Assessment. Native Ecosystems insists the Whitetail Project
was foreseeable because the cutting unit Map Key is dated "2015" in the
Administrative Record Index, see AR8933, the Ashland Post Fire Landscape
Assessment addressed future management issues, AR7549, and the treatment of
these same areas was proposed in pre-fire timber sales, AR8863. However, the
Forest Service explained that the 2015 date in the index reflects the date of the
"NAIP Imagery" used to show the cutting units. The cutting unit maps themselves
show mapping occurred on March 29, 2016. See AR8911. Moreover, while the
Ashland Post Fire Landscape Assessment addressed future management issues, it
does not mention the Whitetail Project but rather states that the commercial value
of fire-killed trees begins to deteriorate and become unsuitable for timber product
recovery about 12 to 18 months after the fire. AR7605. This language indicates
that logging in 2016/17 was not expected to be feasible. Additionally, the Phoenix
Project Decision Memo does not mention the Whitetail Project, see AR12108,
12116, and while activity was proposed in this area prior to the 2012 fire, the
record shows that the nature of the landscape and type of activity has changed.
Native Ecosystems further argues that the temporal and geographical
proximity of the projects requires they be considered together. Although the
Whitetail and Phoenix project areas abut one another, the Whitetail Project entails
salvage of 250 acres across a 5,288-acre area, AR8897, 8949, while the Phoenix
Project entails salvage of 250 acres across a 1,696-acre area, AR12156. The
closest cutting units are a quarter-mile apart. And, while the roadside salvage
occurred in the same area, it was in part based on roadside hazard tree removal and
had different project purposes. AR12083-84, 12060-61. Nevertheless, Native
Ecosystems' concerns were generally met during the scoping process, which
"addresses the risk that similar salvage projects, over both time and geographic
areas, will cause significant cumulative impacts on the environment." Colorado
Wild, Heartwoodv. U.S. Forest Serv., 435 F.3d 1204, 1221 (10th Cir. 2006).
These same regulations "preclude the breaking down of projects into small
component parts to avoid cumulative significance." Id. (citing 40 C.F .R. §
1508.27(b)(7) (in evaluating the significance of impact, an agency must consider
"[w]hether the action is related to other actions with individually insignificant but
cumulatively significant impacts ... Significance cannot be avoided by ...
breaking [a project] down into small component parts")); see also 68 Fed. Reg.
145, 44604 (July 29, 2003) ("[S]egmenting a larger project into smaller projects in
order to meet the acreage requirements and be considered under these [categorical
exclusions] is contrary to Forest Service guidance."); see also Utah Envtl. Cong. v.
Bosworth, 443 F.3d 732, 741 (10th Cir. 2006) (explaining that collective impacts
from a large number of small projects are addressed by the "extraordinary
circumstances" safety valve). Here, the Forest Service addressed the cumulative
effects of the Project. The sufficiency of that analysis is discussed below.
NEPA allows a federal agency to adopt a categorical exclusion for a
"category of actions which do not individually or cumulatively have a significant
effect on the human environment." 40 C.F.R. § 1508.4. A "cumulative impact"
"is the impact on the environment which results from the incremental impact of
the action when added to other past, present, and reasonably foreseeable future
actions." 40 C.F.R. § 1508.7. "Significance exists if it is reasonable to anticipate
a cumulatively significant impact on the environment." 40 C.F.R. §
1508.27(b)(7). Native Ecosystems' challenge to the Forest Service's cumulative
effects analysis is two-fold. First, Native Ecosystems insists the existence of
cumulative effects, however minor, mandates the preparation of an EA. Second,
Native Ecosystems argues that the agency's conclusion that there were no
significant effects or uncertainty of effects was arbitrary and capricious.
Calling this a "case of first impression," Native Ecosystems first argues that
once the Forest Service determines that a proposed Category 13 timber sale will
have cumulative effects on the environment, as is the case here, it is required to
prepare an EA to study and analyze the potential significance of those cumulative
effects. See AR2209, 2212-13, 8878 (recognizing impact on black-backed
woodpeckers); AR2214 (recognizing that the Project will have "minimal"
cumulative effects on black-backed woodpeckers). But, the mere existence of
cumulative effects does not mandate an EA. An EA is required only if there will
be significant effects or there is uncertainty as to whether the cumulative effects of
the proposed action will be significant. 36 C.F.R. § 220.6(c).
Native Ecosystems argues "significance" must be presumed under Category
13 if salvage activity in the area-not necessarily the project area-exceeds 250
acres. In support of its position, Native Ecosystems relies on the Tenth Circuit's
opinion in Colorado Wild, where the court deferred to the Forest Service's
proposed brightline of250 acres for Category 13 exclusions based on the agency's
argument that "direct, indirect, and cumulative effects arise from acres of activity
and not the number of projects." 435 F.3d at 1216. Native Ecosystems
persuasively argues that, under the Forest Service's own analysis in Colorado
Wild, contiguous and continuous 250-acre salvage projects have cumulative
effects. But it is not clear that courts must presume significant cumulative effects
under those facts. Rather, the significance of the effects depends on the particular
facts of a specific project and the scoping performed in each instance. "Once the
agency considers the proper factors and makes a factual determination on whether
the impacts are significant or not, that decision implicates substantial agency
expertise and is entitled to deference." Alaska Ctr.for Env't, 189 F.3d at 857, 859
("[A]n agency's interpretation of the meaning of its own categorical exclusion
should be given controlling weight unless plainly erroneous or inconsistent with
the terms used in the regulation."). Here, the Forest Service determined the
cumulative effects would not be significant. The propriety of that decision must
be assessed under the specific facts of this Project.
The Forest Service is required to take a "hard look" at the proposed
project's effects and "may not rely on incorrect assumptions of data." Native
Ecosystems Council v. U.S. Forest Serv., 418 F.3d 953, 964 (9th Cir. 2005); 40
C.F.R. § 1500.l(b) ("Accurate scientific analysis, expert agency comments, and
public scrutiny are essential to implementing NEPA."). "When an agency decides
to proceed with an action in the absence of an EA or EIS, the agency must
adequately explain its decision." Alaska Ctr.for Env't, 189 F.3d at 859. In doing
so, it "must supply a convincing statement of reasons why potential effects are
insignificant." Id. (internal quotation marks omitted). To determine whether
agency action is arbitrary or capricious, courts consider "whether the decision was
based on a consideration of the relevant factors and whether there has been a clear
error of judgment." Marsh, 490 U.S. at 378. Native Ecosystems argues that the
Forest Service's decision is "built on a foundation of incorrect assumptions and
inaccurate scientific analysis." (Doc. 34 at 14).
The parties primarily dispute the amount of suitable habitat for the blackbacked woodpecker in and around the Project area. Native Ecosystems insists the
agency cannot rely on the widespread availability of suitable habitat across the
region, but at the same time, that the Forest Service erred by not considering
cumulative effects on a similarly large scale. Not only is Native Ecosystems'
position inconsistent, but the Forest Service considered the proper factors in
deciding to proceed under Category 13, specifically that there were no
extraordinary circumstances or significant cumulative effects that would require
the preparation of an EA or EIS.
While the scoping document for the Whitetail Project does not address the
Phoenix or roadside salvage sales, AROOl-018, the Forest Service did not avoid
performing cumulative review, see AR8878. Rather, the Forest Service
determined that the cumulative impacts are expected to be minimal because the
combined area of the Whitetail, Phoenix, and roadside hazard projects affect less
than 2% of the highly suitable black-backed woodpecker habitat within the 90kilometer cumulative effects area. AR8878-79, 8887, 2212-13. Native
Ecosystems argues, however, that the Forest Service improperly applied Latif
(2012), 5 improperly relied on Samson (2006), 6 conflated home range size with pair
density, and should have performed a field survey.
In regard to Latif, Native Ecosystems argues the Forest Service should have
relied on the authors' most conservative (7% habitat suitability) as opposed to
their most liberal (70% habitat suitability) habitat estimate, and that the Forest
Service ignored Latifs assertion that "Wildfires containing the largest total
acreage of suitable habitat may be primarily important for species persistence."
AR1498; (see Doc 34 at 19.) However, the Forest Service explained that it did not
apply the Latif figures as argued by Native Ecosystems because Latif did not
consider the 2012 fires. AR1497, 2210. Rather, the agency applied the model to
recent fires within a 90-kilometer radius, explaining its process for doing so. See
Quresh S. Latif et. al, Potential Black-backed Woodpecker Nesting Habitat in Recently
Burned Forests ofEastside Montana (Final) (March 2012).
Fred B. Samson, A Conservative Assessment of the Northern Goshawk, Black-backed
Woodpecker, Flammulated Owl, and Pileated Woodpecker in the Nothem Region, USDA Forest
Service (Sept. 24, 2006).
AR 2210-11, 8879. Second, while Native Ecosystems can disagree with Samson's
conclusion as to the number and suitability of remaining snags, see ARI 924,
Samson's analysis and its bearing on black-backed woodpecker habitat is
adequately explained. See AR2209- l 5. Third, the record discusses habitat needs
in terms of nesting and breeding territories, see AR22 l 0, 8878, and it is unclear
that applying Native Ecosystems' preferred approach would alter any of the
Finally, Native Ecosystems argues that the Forest Service should have
performed field surveys to better understand the habitat requirements of the
woodpecker. The Forest Service can use habitat as proxy for measuring a species'
population, so long as it describes both "the quantity and quality of habitat that is
necessary to sustain the viability of the species in question and explain its
methodology for measuring this habitat." Lands Council v. McNair, 629 F.3d
1070, 1081 (9th Cir. 2010) (internal quotation marks omitted). The Wildlife
Report explains that habitat preference for black-backed woodpeckers is "burned
areas with high densities of snags for nesting and foraging." AR2212. The Forest
Service determined 2,019 acres in the Project area met this criteria, or 34.3 percent
of the entire area. Id. But, salvage activity is expected in only 250 acres, or 3.5%
of the suitable nesting habitat in the project area. Id. The Wildlife Report further
explains that: (1) not all habitat in the area is "highly suitable"; (2) not all habitat
is eliminated in cutting areas; and (3) while proposed salvage "has [the] potential
to negatively impact black-backed woodpeckers," the post fire habitat is used for
only a limited time period. See AR2212-13. The Forest Service also considered
ponderosa pine coverage more generally:
The [Project] salvage harvest occurs on 5 .8 percent of the ponderosa pine
coverage in the project area. When combined with the Phoenix Project
and roadside hazard tree removal, salvage harvest will impact 1.5 percent
of the ponderosa pine coverage within the 2012 Ash Creek fire perimeter.
When combined with the noncommercial treatments and broadcast
burning authorized under a separate decision, the total amount of
treatments affect 10.3 percent of the ponderosa pine coverage in the
project area/ 7.2 percent of the ponderosa pine coverage within the Ash
Creek Fire perimeter.
AR8874. Additionally, the Forest Service concluded that "[t]he proposed action
will maintain and improve habitat for most species across the landscape. The
resulting habitat matrix is expected to be adequate for all wildlife resources ....
Abundant nesting and foraging habitat for black-backed woodpeckers will remain
in the project area and cumulative effects area." AR8874. Finally, the agency
noted that no future harvest is anticipated because the fire-killed trees are now too
degraded to be merchantable. AR8888.
While a project may have significant environmental impacts where its
effects are "highly uncertain or involve unique or unknown risks," 40 C.F .R.
§ 1508.27(b)(5); Blue Mtns. Biodiversity Project, 161 F.3d at 1213, the Forest
Service adequately explained why that is not the case here, see AR8878-80; 221015. The agency took the requisite hard look under NEPA.
NFMA provides for forest planning and management at two levels: the
forest level and the individual project level. 16 U.S.C. § 1604; Ohio Forestry
Ass 'n v. Sierra Club, 523 U.S. 726, 729-30 (1998). At the forest level, the agency
develops a Land and Resources Management Plan, i.e., "forest plan." Once the
forest plan is approved, the Forest Service implements the plan by approving or
denying site-specific actions. Forest Guardians v. U.S. Forest Serv., 329 F.3d
1089, 1092 (9th Cir. 2003). The Forest Service's failure to comply with a forest
plan violates NFMA. Native Ecosystems Council, 418 F.3d at 961. The Project
area is subject to the Custer National Forest Management Plan ("Custer Forest
Plan"). Native Ecosystems argues that the Forest Service did not use the best
available science and failed to adequately address the habitat needs of the blackbacked woodpecker. The record supports the Forest Service's determination that
the Project would not violate the Forest Plan.
Best Available Science
Native Ecosystems argues that the Forest Service did not use "the best
available scientific information" in considering the amount of suitable habitat
necessary for the black-backed woodpecker as required by NFMA regulations, 26
C.F.R. § 219.3. 7 The black-backed woodpecker is identified as a Forest Service
sensitive species on the Custer Gallatin National Forest. AR2194, 2209. The
Decision Memo and Wildlife Report explain why and how the agency applied the
habitat models it chose to use. See AR8878-80, 8883, 2209-15. Additionally, the
record shows the agency considered the 1995 Hutto article relied on by Native
Ecosystems, see AR2209, 1292-1388, explained why Samson habitat estimates are
accurate for the black-backed woodpecker, see AR205 l, and addressed concerns
raised by opposing scientific information raised during the comment period,
AR8878-80. The Forest Service also specifically highlighted the unique
relationship between the black-backed woodpecker and stand-replacing fires,
stating "it would be difficult to find a forest bird species more restricted to a single
habitat type in the northern Rockies than the black-backed woodpecker is to early
post-fire conditions." AR2209; see also AR1293. Moreover, most ofNative
Ecosystems' argument relies on the scientific opinions of its own expert-Hanson,
which are not properly before the Court. San Luis, 776 F.3d at 993; see also
In contrast, as discussed above, NEPA regulations merely demand information of "high
quality" and professional integrity. See 40 C.F.R. §§ 1500.l(b), 1502.24; see 73 Fed. Reg.
61292, 61295 (Oct. 15, 2008) ("NEPA itself does not required the use of 'best available data."').
Marsh, 490 U.S. at 378 ("When specialists express conflicting views, an agency
must have discretion to rely on the reasonable opinions of its own qualified
experts even if, as an original matter, a court might find contrary views more
persuasive."). Native Ecosystems fails to show that the Forest Service did not
apply the best available science.
Forest Plan Compliance8
"The [Custer National] Forest has the responsibility to manage the land to
maintain at least viable populations of existing native and desirable non-native
vertebrate species ...." AR9553. A "viable population" is defined as "[a]
population which has adequate numbers and dispersion of reproductive
individuals to ensure the continued existence of the species population in the
planning area." AR9684. Moreover, almost all of the salvage harvest is located in
lands designated as "MAD," which stands for "Management Area D." 9 AR8889,
9057 (list by harvest unit). Management Area Dis "a multiple use management
area that includes areas that are important to the perpetuation of selected wildlife
and fish species." AR8889, 9590. The goal of the management area "is to
Native Ecosystems did not address this argument in its response/reply. (See Doc. 34.)
0.87 acre of the salvage is located in Management Area G. AR8889. The goal of
Management Area G "is to manage  areas for the maintenance and improvement of a healthy
diverse forest and source of wood products for dependent local markets." AR8890.
maintain or improve the long-term diversity and quality of habitat for the selected
species identified by the Ranger District, as well as accommodate other resource
management activities such as timber harvest, livestock grazing, and oil and gas
development," recognizing that "[s]ome short-term habitat impacts may be
necessary to achieve long-term wildlife goals." AR8890, 9590. While the
"selected species" for the Ashland District is the mule deer, the Plan requires other
wildlife and fish species, including the black-backed woodpecker, to be
considered. AR9590. In order to implement those standards, silvicultural
prescriptions are to "identify timber treatments that will perpetuate or improve key
wildlife habitats" when selected for harvest. AR9591.
Native Ecosystems argues that the Project is inconsistent with the Forest
Plan because the stands selected for harvest provide the best habitat for blackbacked woodpeckers and the Project neither maintains nor improves that habitat.
See AR2212 (describing Whitetail cutting units as "highly suitable" habitat). The
Forest Service determined that "[t]he Project is consistent with all applicable
[Management Area] D standards," relying on the analysis from the Wildlife
Report. AR8890. As emphasized by the Forest Service, and contrary to Native
Ecosystems' position, the standards outlined by the Forest Plan and the resource
concerns addressed under Management Plan D are not just for black-backed
woodpeckers. While severely-burned, dense stands targeted by the Project
constitute key black-backed woodpecker habitat, AR2209, 2212, 12200, the Forest
Service weighed that fact against the existence of black-backed woodpecker
habitat in the area and the management needs for other species and resources, see
AR8887, 8897, 2210. For example, the Project is expected to improve habitat for
mule deer, which "use unburned forest in higher proportion than the current
transitional forest type." AR2220; see also AR8881. Because Management Area
D emphasizes divergent habitat and resource needs, it does not mandate the
particular habitat requirements argued by Native Ecosystems. AR9590.
Moreover, Native Ecosystems' reliance on Alliance for the Wild Rockies v.
Cottrell, 623 F.3d 1127, 1135 (9th Cir. 2011), is unpersuasive. Cottrell addressed
human use and enjoyment of discrete sections of a forest, finding irreparable harm
where a project would prevent such use and enjoyment of a specific acreage. 623
F.3d at 1135. Unlike the aesthetic and recreational issues at issue in Cottrell, the
Forest Service explains how the habitat needs of the black-backed woodpecker are
met throughout a 90-kilometer dispersal area, see AR8897, 12281, 2243A, across
varying levels of habitat suitability (high, moderate, low), AR2210, and how the
Project's impacts, even cumulatively, would not affect the woodpecker's viability,
AR2214, 8887. Native Ecosystems fails to show that the Forest Service's decision
that the Project met the requirements of both the Forest Plan and Management
Area D standards was arbitrary and capricious in light of their mixed-use mandate.
Use of a categorical exclusion to avoid necessary review would be
improper. Even so, Native Ecosystems' concerns are not borne out by the facts of
this case. The Forest Service's decision to segment the salvage projects, its
conclusion that the salvage projects will not have significant cumulative effects,
and its determination that its actions were consistent with the Forest Plan were
neither arbitrary nor capricious.
Accordingly, IT IS ORDERED that the Forest Service's motion for
summary judgment (Doc. 29) is GRANTED and Native Ecosystems' motion (Doc.
25) is DENIED.
IT IS FURTHER ORDERED that the Clerk of Court is directed to enter
judgment against the plaintiff and in favor of the defendants and close this case.
L--h-- of February, 2017.
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