Court Finds Forest Service’s NEPA Analysis “Strains Reason”

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A court recently rejected a Forest Service environmental analysis because the court found the agency engaged in speculation to reach its conclusion.  The court held that while its review of determinations an agency makes in its National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) analyses is highly deferential, that deference is not unlimited.  In this case, the court found that the Forest Service’s determinations strained reason and were “a stretch.”  As a result, the court rejected the NEPA analysis.

The case involved an Environmental Assessment regarding the impact of snowmobiling on mountain goats, lynx and wolverines within the Sawtooth National Forest.  The Forest Service selected an alternative based on the need to prevent disturbances to mountain goats, protect mapped and predicted lynx habitat and reduce disturbances to wolverine dens.  The court determined that agency’s selected was unreasonable because no lynx had ever been documented in the area at issue and the agency’s conclusion was entirely “speculative.”  In addition, the Forest Service merely assumed wolverine dens existed in the area but all of their analyses showed that none any actually did.  Finally, the court noted that the agency found that mountain goats sought out rocky, rugged terrain and low snow conditions, and thus were not likely to interact with snowmobiles.  Thus, the court found the agency’s determination that its selection was based on its need to limit interaction with mountain goats as “somewhat odd.”   The court then rejected the EA finding that “while the Forest Service has done substantial work on this project, its conclusions are, frankly, a stretch based upon the evidence in the record.”

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