U.S. District Judge Daniel Ezra of Honolulu, filling in for a sick Idaho judge, granted the injunction on Jan. 12, lighting the fuse.
Within a week, two major open-pit mines and two mines under construction were scheduled to close in Custer and Lemhi counties, with a total of 800 jobs at stake. Twenty-eight smaller mines, three timber sales and 69 grazing allotments also were placed in jeopardy in the Salmon and Challis national forests alone.
Attorneys with the Sierra Club Legal Defense Fund, who represented the Pacific Rivers Council and the Wilderness Society in the case, pooh-poohed the impact of the decision - at first.
"It's not the end of the world," said defense fund attorney Kristen Boyles in Seattle. But once Ezra's ruling became known in central Idaho, people talked of nothing else.
"This decision stinks and I'm mad as hell," said state Rep. Lenore Barrett, R-Challis. "This is war. I think we'll probably win the war, but how many bodies will be left on the battlefield before we win the war?"
Within one day, Barrett and two fellow legislators from central Idaho reported more than 150 telephone messages from irate citizens. On Jan. 21, about 350 people showed up for a rally in Challis. A 4-year-old boy wore a large sign saying, "Please, don't put my daddy out of work!'
Jack Cook, a one-time salmon fisherman, now owner of a sporting goods store in Salmon, said the injunction was a sham. "There's no way this is going to help make the salmon come back," Cook said. "It makes me feel like an innocent person is being sent to the gallows."
On the eve of the impending shutdown, the environmental plaintiffs switched gears and asked Ezra to stay the injunction until March 16. Craig Gehrke, regional director of the Wilderness Society, said the groups did not want to harm the communities.
"The parties stipulate that the injunction ... is anticipated to cause severe economic hardship and to seriously disrupt some local communities near these forests," the stay said.
The two-month stay has doused the firestorm for now, but the lawsuit's impacts continue to linger in Idaho and Congress.
The case underscored a widening gap between the values of urban environmentalists and rural working folks. It also revealed a rift in the environmental community. No Idaho-based environmental group participated in the lawsuit. Some openly criticized the Oregon-based Pacific Rivers Council and the Washington, D.C.-based Wilderness Society for pursuing an injunction at a time when Congress is leaning toward gutting the Endangered Species Act.
"I totally screamed at him (Bob Doppelt, Pacific Rivers Council executive director). I told him he had set me back three years in building organization in support of the Endangered Species Act in Idaho," says Wendy Wilson, executive director of Idaho Rivers United. "I understand why they filed the suit, but their strategy sucked."
A front-page article in the Feb. 6 issue of the Washington Times singled out the lawsuit as the "most devastating environmental shutdown since the northern spotted owl brought the Pacific Northwest timber industry to its knees."
Rep. Mike Crapo, R-Idaho, and others will single out the lawsuit as a prime example of environmental excess when Congress debates reauthorization of the Endangered Species Act, said Crapo's press aide, Susan Hawkes.
Four days after the stay was granted, an estimated 2,500 people marched into downtown Salmon for a group portrait. They wanted the Pacific Rivers Council and Wilderness Society to know that people depend on the forests to make a living.
Gehrke and Doppelt maintain that filing the lawsuit was the right thing to do to force the U.S. Forest Service to protect salmon habitat.
"Some of the forest plans, such as the Nez Perce and Payette, called for degradation of salmon habitat and have inflated targets for timber harvest," Gehrke said. "We're saying: Let's face reality, we've got an endangered species here, you've got to revise the forest plans and lower those timber targets so you can protect salmon habitat."
Since Snake River chinook and sockeye salmon were protected under the Endangered Species Act in 1991, the Forest Service and the National Marine Fisheries Service have been consulting on a project-by-project basis. Instead of revising the phone-book-sized forest plans, the Forest Service adjusted each logging, mining or grazing project to protect salmon habitat. Then the federal fisheries service reviewed the projects, and in many cases, required greater protection for habitat.
This was the procedure for projects that "may affect" salmon habitat. But for projects that the Forest Service deemed were "not likely to affect" salmon habitat, the Forest Service did not necessarily consult the national fisheries service.
Legal Defense Fund attorney Boyles argued that this was akin to "jumping out of a plane while the instructor inspects the parachute." She says the Forest Service should have revised its 10-year forest plans in 1991, thus avoiding the bind it faces now.
However, some people who advocate saving salmon did not think the lawsuit would help. "All they're doing is crossing the t's and dotting the i's. I don't think it'll save a single salmon," said Hadley Roberts, a Salmon, Idaho, environmentalist and author of a bird-watching guide.
"If those Sierra Club (Legal Defense Fund) attorneys put the same amount of effort into addressing the dams, we'd be a lot better off," Roberts said. "Heck, 90 percent of the fish are killed in the dams."
Many fish biologists concur with Roberts.
But Doppelt and Gehrke contend that the lawsuit will help ensure that the few salmon who do make it past the dams have high-quality spawning habitat in the forests. It will also help bull trout, cutthroat trout and other aquatic life that depend on healthy habitat, they say.
Meanwhile, Pat Ford, executive director of Save Our Wild Salmon and long-time Idaho environmentalist, said he and others have to work on rebuilding trust with loggers, miners and ranchers.
"This whole episode has caused conservationists big trouble of all kinds," he said. "But I want to be able to go into Challis and Salmon and talk about our goals and objectives and try to find some common ground."
He'd also like people from Challis and Salmon to put pressure on Sen. Larry Craig, R-Idaho, to push for fixing downriver dams to save salmon.
"It's fine to say, "Don't pick on us, the problem lies in the dams," "''''Ford said. "But I'd say the shortest path to avoid these problems is to restore the fish. And the shortest path to that solution is Idaho's senior senator."
* Steve Stuebner
The writer works in Boise, Idaho.