Ruling Limits Courts' Role In Environmental Review

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The 9th Circuit rebuffed environmentalists who challenged a logging project in the Idaho Panhandle National Forest, saying it is not the court's job to act as a panel of scientists and order the government to "explain every possible scientific uncertainty."

The full appellate court overturned an injunction granted to the Lands Council and the Wild West Institute, clearing the way for selective logging of 3,829 acres of land as part of the "Mission Brush Project."

Lands Council argued that the U.S. Forest Service violated federal environmental law by failing to explain its scientific analysis of the project's effect on wildlife, especially the flammulated owl, and by not maintaining at least 10 percent old growth throughout the forest.

The court said it took the case en banc "to clarify some of our environmental jurisprudence with respect to our review of the actions of the United States Forest Service."

Judge Smith said Lands Council's arguments "illustrate how, in recent years, our environmental jurisprudence has, at times, shifted away from the appropriate standard of review."

It is not the role of federal courts to tell the Forest Service how to validate its hypotheses on wildlife viability, choose which scientific studies should be used for determining compliance with federal law, and order the agency to explain each scientific uncertainty, Smith said.

The court, concluding that the government has complied with federal law, reversed the halt on selective logging.

The thinning project had been proposed, in part to restore the forests to their historic composition, and to decrease the risks of fires, insects and disease.

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