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Conservation groups file third lawsuit in recent months against U.S. Forest Service

Staff with the Southern Environmental Law Center walk through the Pisgah National Forest on May 24, 2023.
Josh Sullivan
File photo of Southern Environmental Law Center staffers walking through the Pisgah National Forest on May 24, 2023.

Conservation groups argue flaws in the 2023 Nantahala-Pisgah Forest Plan will put endangered forest bats at risk, according to a recent lawsuit filed against the U.S. Forest Service and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

The Nantahala and Pisgah National Forests in western North Carolina provide habitat for four critically endangered bats: the northern long-eared bat, the Indiana bat, the Virginia big-eared bat, and the gray bat.

The lawsuit argues that the Forest Service consulted with Fish and Wildlife Services because these bats were likely to be impacted by the Forest Plan. But that consultation was flawed and in violation of the Endangered Species Act, according to the suit.

“The Endangered Species Act required the Forest Service to supply [USFWS] with the best scientific data available to inform the consultation. Instead, the Forest Service gave [USFWS] information it knew was inaccurate and incomplete,” “according to the lawsuit.

Sam Evans is a senior attorney with the Southern Environmental Law Center and the leader of the National Forests and Parks Program.

“The fundamental problem in this case is that the Forest Service used inaccurate and misleading data to justify much more of that large scale logging than is compatible with those rare and endangered wildlife needs,” Evans told WUNC.

Last year, the Forest Service finalized a new land management plan for the Nantahala and Pisgah National Forests. It was the first time the plan had been updated since 1994. The plan sets goals and guidelines for the next few decades on how to manage the two forests.

Environmental advocates and members of the public strongly criticize the plan, saying it will quintuple logging in the forests and negatively impact wildlife.

“I started working on this Forest Plan in 2013. I was optimistic for most of those years that we were going to come out with something really good," said Evans. "But I’ve been really disappointed. I am extremely disappointed in how the Forest Service [has] handled this.”

With this filing, the Forest Service now faces three lawsuits filed since February, two of which are directly related to the Forest Plan.

“There’s [the one against] the Southside projectnear the Whitewater River,” Evans said. “There's another lawsuit that challenges the use of volumetric timber targets to drive project development. And then there's this lawsuit that challenges the consultation process for the Forest Plan itself.”

A spokesperson for USFWS said in an email that the agency does not comment on proposed or pending litigation.

Forest Service spokesperson Adam Rondeau also said the agency is unable to comment on the specifics of the ongoing litigation.

“The development of the current forest plan leaned heavily on the input from a diverse group of nonprofit organizations, academic institutions, private sector entities and state, local and Tribal government agencies over the course of a decade with the goal of using a data-driven approach to ensuring the long-term sustainability of these working forestlands,” Rondeau added.

SELC filed this case in mid-April in federal court on behalf of Defenders of Wildlife, MountainTrue, Sierra Club and the Center for Biological Diversity.

Clarification: This story has been updated to clarify lawsuits involving the Forest Service. It faces three lawsuits, two of which are directly related to the Forest Plan.

Celeste Gracia covers the environment for WUNC. She has been at the station since September 2019 and started off as morning producer.
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