By ERIC FREEDMAN
Capital News Service
LANSING – Rejecting objections by two environmental groups, a judge has cleared the way for the U.S. Forest Service to swap 240 scattered acres of federal land in parcels for a 421- acre piece of privately owned land in the Upper Peninsula bordering Porcupine Mountains Wilderness State Park.
U.S. District Judge Robert Bell ruled that the Forest Service had followed proper procedures in approving a controversial land exchange in Ottawa National Forest.
It is the only Ottawa National Forest land swap to be challenged in court, said Ian Shackleford, the forest’s acting public affairs officer.
Shackleford said the 421-acre area will be part of a management area that emphasizes “semi-primitive non-motorized recreation. Visitors can enjoy remoteness and solitude while visiting the area for hunting, camping, hiking or other activities.”
Ottawa National Forest covers about 1 million acres in the western U.P.
Two conservation organizations – Partners in Forestry Cooperative and Northwood Alliance – and seven individuals who use that part of the Ottawa sued to block the deal, arguing that the deal “will trade away old-growth, hemlock, cedar stands and related wildlife habitat and will remove from public ownership unique and rare geographic features, including Wildcat Falls, Scott and Howe Creek, bluffs and ledges and other special parts of the public lands.”
The land the Forest Service would get from owners Robert and Lisa Delich “offers little incentive to use, as the timber was recently cut very heavily and offers little in aesthetic value or other features to attract the public,” and “improper forestry practices had occurred,” the challengers’ lawsuit contends.
Joe Hovel, president of Partners in Forestry Cooperative, said, “The decision is a travesty and poorly thought out, and we’re certainly considering an appeal.”
Hovel said he had offered to drop the suit if Robert Delich would sell the land to a nonprofit land conservancy at 5 percent more than its 2010 appraised value, but Delich declined.
The timber on the federal parcels is worth more per acre than the appraised value of the land because of declining property prices for cut-over land in the U.P. he said.
The suit claims the Deliches intend to “log and subdivide” the property, but their lawyer, Michael Pope of Ironwood, said he’s uncertain about their plans.
There are no land exchanges in litigation in the U.P.’s Hiawatha National Forest or in Huron-Manistee National Forest in the northern Lower Peninsula, , according to Forest Service officials.
The suit accuses the Forest Service of violating the National Environmental Policy Act. That law mandates federal agencies study the environmental impacts of major federal actions.
In part, it claims the Forest Service failed to analyze a sufficient range of alternatives and adequately analyze environmental impacts.
But in his recent decision, Bell ruled that the agency had complied with all legal requirements.
He said the agency seriously considered opponents’ concerns about the “unique characteristics” of the land. That consideration included an assessment by “an interdisciplinary team of scientists who investigated the environmental effects of the project on plants, wildlife, water, soil, recreation and heritage resources.”
And although the federal government would lose 61 acres of old-growth forest in the deal, the impact would be minor because the Ottawa has more than 20,000 acres of old growth, he said.
Bell’s written opinion noted the opponents’ objection to losing public access to scenic Wildcat Falls, which the Forest Service acknowledged give some visitors “a sense of place and attachment to the area.” However, he said the Forest Service had considered that fact in agreeing to the swap.
“The court is satisfied that the Forest Service adequately studied the issues and took a hard look at the environmental consequences of its decision,” Bell said. “It is not the court’s role to second-guess the correctness of the Forest Service decision.”
He also said the Forest Service had considered new information about unidentified feline tracks seen near Wildcat Falls, which the challengers said may have been made by a Canada lynx. The lynx is an endangered species and hasn’t been sighted in the Ottawa for almost 50 years.
However, Forest Service biologists using trail cameras, tracking and snares were unable to confirm what type of animal had made the tracks, Bell said.
The Ottawa’s Shackleford said the decision allows the Forest Service to “move forward with the exchange, and we expect it will be complete by the end of the calendar year.”
Two other land deals are in progress in the Ottawa: The Northern Land & Sales Exchange Project would trade 81 acres of federal land for 49 acres of private land along the Ontonagon River near Bergland and Kenton, Schackleford said. The Hill Land Exchange would swap 0.2 acres of federal land for the same amount of private land near the South Branch of the Presque Isle River.