An environmental group has filed a federal lawsuit in response to a 50-mile fireline cut through timber and critical fish and wildlife habitat to fight a fire that never came close last year in North Central Washington.

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The rush by the U.S. Forest Service to cut a fireline through critical fish and wildlife habitat to fight a fire that never came anywhere near has spurred a lawsuit in federal court.

Forest Service Employees for Environmental Ethics (FSEEE), a Eugene, Ore.-based nonprofit, filed the lawsuit last week in U.S. District Court in Spokane. It seeks to rescind a 2008 regulation that allows the Forest Service to suspend all environmental laws when it fights fire, if fire managers declare a state of emergency.

The suit also would require a review of the agency’s firefighting program to assess the effectiveness of its tactics and their effect on people and the environment.

Firefighting would continue as usual during the course of the review but could be subject to new restrictions as a result of it.

A so-called programmatic Environmental Impact Statement could create general rules guiding firefighting tactics. Such an EIS was conducted on the use of aerial fire retardant as a result of a series of legal actions filed by the same group beginning in 2005. That environmental review placed restrictions on spraying retardant over streams or in critical habitat, unless fire immediately threatens human life.

Similar restrictions need to be considered for other firefighting tactics, said Andy Stahl, executive director of FSEEE.

“The Forest Service needs to examine publicly the effectiveness of what it is doing, and invite the public to comment on firefighting, and educate the public on the pros and cons of different tactics,” Stahl said. “Does it make sense to cut old growth (timber) while fighting fire? To bulldoze sensitive soils? To cut trees along creeks? Sometimes it does, and sometimes it doesn’t. What we are seeking is thoughtful decision making.”

Holly Krake, spokeswoman for the Wenatchee River Ranger District of the Okanogan-Wenatchee National Forest, where the fireline was launched, said the agency had no comment on pending litigation.

The fireline was logged through 114 acres of critical habitat for Northern spotted owls, a threatened species. While not a clear-cut, in thinning the line loggers cut many large trees, including one so big it was a one-log load on a logging truck. Steel-tracked heavy equipment tore up fragile ground along streams, and erosive soils were bulldozed.

Fire managers invoked the agency’s emergency clause to start logging the line Aug. 31, declaring concern that the Wolverine fire would make a run into the Entiat Valley, threatening Plain and other communities.

Managers kept on logging even after weather conditions turned rainy and cool, and objections were raised by their own staff, who saw no emergency, internal records and emails released to The Seattle Times by the Forest Service showed. The fire never came anywhere near.

The up-to-300-foot-wide, approximately 50-mile-long fireline was cut from the Entiat drainage, in the east, to Twin Lakes to the west. Loggers felled more than 930 logging trucks’ worth of forest.

“Commercially merchantable timber was removed in large volume; small trees, slash and brush were left,” Plain resident Rich Haydon, a retired 31-year employee of the Forest Service, wrote in a declaration filed with the lawsuit. “One year later, the CPL (community protection line) remains simply an improperly implemented timber sale, and serves no fire suppression purpose.”

Some of the slash still hasn’t been removed from the land, and now brush is growing up through it. “This combination of leafy brush in newly dry, sunny areas, growing among highly flammable slash, represents a dangerous fuel load; a fire risk rather than a protection,” Haydon wrote.

“This logged and scarified land is now a seedbed for invasive weeds, prone to easy ignition and fire spread,” Haydon wrote. “Flammable slash left over from the logging remains along much of the line, making this area more prone to ignition and fire spread than it was before the logging occurred.”

The Forest Service cut the line under an emergency declaration, without any environmental review, and paid for it using fire-suppression dollars. But to maintain the line now that it’s cut, the district will need to conduct an environmental review and obtain funding through the normal budgeting process. That has blocked desired fuel reduction and forest maintenance projects in the area in the past, local fire managers have said.

The suit argues the Forest Service exceeded its authority in 2008 in enacting the emergency regulation, and that firefighting, a major federal action, is not exempt from the National Environmental Policy Act. As such, it must be managed under an environmental review that provides program guidance.

“This has been a long time coming,” said Tim Ingalsbee, executive director of the nonprofit Firefighters United for Safety, Ethics & Ecology.

“This wholesale exemption from forest plans, guidelines, environmental laws, it is laissez-faire at its worst,” Ingalsbee said. “We are crying out for transparency and accountability. And under the fog, or I should say the smoke screen of war on wildfire, they are lacking both,” he said of the Forest Service.

The agency has defended the fireline as necessary, and said that continuing the cut even after conditions changed was good judgment, given the uncertainty of fire behavior.