A committee assembled by the Forest Service ruled in 1992 that northern goshawks were “habitat generalists occupying a mosaic of forest types, forest ages, structural conditions and successional stages,” whereas the CBD and Sierra Club maintain that the raptors prefer old-growth forests. They say scientific data supporting their position was neglected in the preparation of the forest plan.
It was a position also supported by the Arizona Game and Fish Department, the New Mexico Department of Game and Fish and U.S. Department of the Interior’s Fish and Wildlife Service and numerous scientists, all of whom submitted letters refuting the committee’s conclusion.
However, according to the appellate court’s ruling, the Forest Service neglected to answer to those concerns in its final environmental impact statement.
“The (Forest) Service did not mention or respond to comments challenging (its) conclusion that goshawks are habitat generalists,” Pogue wrote.
The ruling doesn’t settle the question of whether goshawks are habitat generalists or specialists, but it does maintain that the Forest Service was required to address and answer to concerns based on responsible science in its final EIS.
“Because the commenters’ evidence and opinions directly challenge the scientific basis upon which the final EIS rests and which is central to it, we hold that the Appellees were required to disclose and respond to such viewpoints in the final impact statement itself,” Pogue wrote.
Officials at the Forest Service’s regional office in Albuquerque are still studying the decision to determine its implications. According to Cathie Schmidlin, a spokesperson for Kaibab National Forest, if the ruling forces significant change to the 1996 management plan, it could also affect initiatives built on that plan, such as the East Rim Vegetative Management Plan. But right now, it’s too soon to tell.
“We’re not really sure what impact it will have,” she said. “They’re assessing what they need to do and asking for clarification from Judge Broomfield.”
District Judge Robert C. Broomfield was the presiding judge on the case, which was argued in July.
Whether the 9th Circuit Court ruling will substantively alter the East Rim plan is “the million-dollar question,” said Schmidlin. She said logging activity isn’t scheduled to begin for a number of months.
The ruling is an important victory, according to opponents of the East Rim plan, which contains provisions for logging some old-growth forest in the Kaibab Forest near the Canyon’s North Rim, an area that contains the densest population of northern goshawk in the Southwest.
When the plan was approved in June, the Center for Biological Diversity, Sierra Club - Grand Canyon Chapter, and the Southwest Forest Alliance appealed to the Forest Service. The appeal was denied on Oct. 10.
According to Sharon Galbreath, Executive Director of the Southwest Forest Alliance, the appellate court decision may negate the need for a further court challenge on the East Rim plan by forcing the Forest Service to revisit its policies on old-growth logging.
To further protect the area, environmental groups are working to have the North Kaibab Forest designated an Old Growth Preserve.
Already, old-growth forest is dwindling, with only 13 percent of trees on Forest Service land measuring more than 12 inches in diameter.