by Matt Volz, Associated Press
HELENA, Mont. (WTW) — Conservation groups suing to block a logging project in a western Montana have found an unlikely opponent: other conservation groups.
The Alliance for the Wild Rockies and three other conservation groups filed a lawsuit last year saying the U.S. Forest Service approved the 2,038-acre Colt Summit Project without ensuring it wouldn’t harm lynx, grizzly bears and bull trout.
The groups have been successful in the past in delaying or halting numerous timber projects across Montana by challenging government agencies’ adherence to environmental laws and endangered species protections when making their proposals.
But the Wilderness Society and the Montana Wilderness Association say this project in the Lolo National Forest should be allowed to move ahead because it was developed as part of a collaborative effort to restore the forest.
They and 25 other named and unnamed groups and individuals from loggers to firefighters filed a brief Monday in U.S. District Court in Missoula supporting the Colt project.
Megan Birzell of the Wilderness Society said Tuesday that they are part of an ideological shift toward collaborative forest projects that involves in the planning everybody who has a stake in the forest, including governments, conservationists, industry and communities.
“We’ve got to set aside the differences between all the groups for the safety of the community,” said Seeley Lake Fire Chief Frank Maradeo. “We’ve got a common goal, and we’re going to defend it.”
The project has received federal government funding as part of the 1.5-million-acre Southwestern Crown of the Continent restoration project. The project will improve the forest’s health by combining logging and burning fuels, decommissioning roads or converting them to trails and treating noxious weeds, the groups said in their brief.
Mike Garrity, the Alliance for the Wild Rockies’ executive director, said he is bothered by the other conservation groups’ opposition to the lawsuit, but that doesn’t change anything. The proposal is illegal because it did not consider the impact on lynx and other endangered or threatened species that live in the forest, and no amount of collaboration can overlook that, he said.
“I’m really upset with these groups that claim to be conservationists and environmentalists, and they are promoting a project that will harm lynx and grizzly bears and bull trout. I think they should give their members all their money back,” Garrity said.
The groups supporting the project say that they tried to involve the suing conservation groups early in the project’s planning, but they chose a different path.
“They’ve adopted a litigation business model and choose to go down that track and not be involved upfront,” said Gordy Sanders of Pyramid Mountain Lumber.
Garrity said his organization has been involved in the project since it was formally proposed by the Forest Service, but its recommendations were ignored.
One conservation group that is not a plaintiff in the lawsuit, the WildWest Institute, supports Garrity’s view. The group filed its own court document in which it characterized the logging project as solely a Forest Service proposal masquerading as a collaborative project.
The Forest Service pushed the project through without input or vote by the Southwestern Crown of the Continent project members on the proposal, WildWest Institute attorney Christopher Karr wrote. If it goes through, it could set a bad precedent for collaborative projects, he added.
“This is less a collaboration and more of a rubber-stamping of a pre-packaged project without looking at any of the impacts on the environment or wildlife,” Karr wrote.
Birzell said the Southwestern Crown of the Continent is mainly a funding mechanism, and the development of the project was undertaken by a collaborative group called the Lolo Restoration Committee.
The Forest Service has asked Judge Donald Molloy to dismiss the case. No hearing has yet been set.