by Tom Kuglin, Independent Record
Two conservation groups made the first legal challenge to a logging operation excluded from environmental analysis and public review under the 2014 Farm Bill.
On Thursday, the Alliance for the Wild Rockies and Native Ecosystems Council filed a lawsuit in U.S. District Court in Missoula to stop the Rendezvous Trails timber sale near West Yellowstone. The sale calls for logging 250 acres of lodgepole pine on the western boundary of Yellowstone National Park.
The alliance and council allege that the Forest Service acted too quickly in categorically excluding the timber sale from analysis and review, including public comment and appeals under the National Environmental Policy Act.
The 2014 Farm Bill allows timber sales up to 3,000 acres in forests designated as unhealthy because of disease or insect infestation.
The groups say the categorical exclusion for the Rendezvous Trails came before the secretary of agriculture formally designated the area.
“Our position is they jumped the gun,” said Mike Garrity, executive director for the Alliance for the Wild Rockies.
According to the lawsuit, on March 19 the secretary of agriculture asked western governors to nominate landscapes impacted by insects and disease. Gov. Steve Bullock made his nomination of more than 5.1 million acres in all of Montana’s national forests, which the secretary approved on May 20.
The suit alleges that, on March 13, before approval of Bullock’s designation, Hebgen Lake District Ranger Cavan Fitzsimmons issued a decision memo and finding of no significant impact from the timber sale, and said that no public comment, notices or appeals would be allowed because of the provisions of the Farm Bill.
“The Forest Service just set a new record for criminal behavior,” Garrity said. “They couldn’t even wait for the fasttrack logging provisions of the new Farm Bill to go into effect before they cut the public out of the decision-making process for logging our publicly owned national forests.”
Keith Olson, executive director of the Montana Logging Association, called the groups “notorious serial litigators.”
“Until a seemingly sympathetic Judiciary stops rewarding them with obscene amounts of taxpayer dollars, they will continue their obstructionist ways,” he said. “Rendezvous Trails would appear to be a fuels reduction and community protection project, yet the litigants would have you believe the resultant project will resemble the American equivalent of Chernobyl.”
Congress and administrations need to adopt sensible laws and policies, or litigious groups and myopic judges will continue to insert themselves as masters of our public domain, Olson said.
Even if the agency waited for the Farm Bill to go into effect, the conservation groups still have legal standing to bring a lawsuit against the Forest Service, Garrity said.
“The Farm Bill also says it must follow the forest plan and Endangered Species Act, so even if they waited it still wouldn’t be legal,” Garrity said.
The Forest Service is required by the Gallatin National Forest plan and ESA to protect habitat for grizzly bears, lynx and wolverines, species listed as threatened or warranted for listing under the ESA, he said.
“The Rendezvous Trails timber sale would turn ski trails into logging roads and grizzly and lynx habitat into a sacrifice zone for the timber industry,” said Sara Johnson, director of the Native Ecosystems Council.