by Carly Flandro, Chronicle Staff Writer
Conservation groups filed a lawsuit this week against two proposed logging and road-building projects in the Gallatin National Forest.
The conservationists previously brought their objections before the U.S. Forest Service but were unsuccessful in getting the projects dropped or postponed. Now they have resorted to the courts.
Mike Garrity, executive director of Alliance for the Wild Rockies, believes the federal district court, where the complaint was filed Tuesday, will rule in the groups’ favor.
The alliance and Native Ecosystems Council filed the lawsuit against the Bozeman Municipal Watershed and the East Boulder projects. Defendants include the U.S. Forest Service, the Region One forester and Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks.
The conservation groups claim the projects would result in thousands of acres of logging, more than a 1,000 acres of prescribed burning and about seven miles of new road construction.
“The last thing you want to do in a healthy watershed is bulldoze in seven miles of new logging roads,” Garrity said in a prepared statement.
The Bozeman Municipal Watershed Project calls for burning, harvesting and thinning 4,800 acres in the Hyalite and Bozeman Creek drainages. Those drainages supply more than 80 percent of the Bozeman area’s water, and thinning efforts there are intended to reduce the extent of any potential wildfires.
Officials have said that a severe wildfire could put so much sediment and ash in the creeks that intakes for the water utility could clog, and the city could be cut off from its water.
Garrity said he believes the odds of a major fire striking those particular drainages are very low and that even then, a major fire would have to be followed by heavy rains.
If new roads are built, however, he said there’s a 100 percent chance that sediment will end up in creeks, hurting trout habitat and polluting drinking water.
Gallatin National Forest spokeswoman Marna Daley said historical fire records show that there have been a number of lightning-caused fires in those drainages. The use of the drainages, particularly Hyalite, also creates the potential for human-caused fires, she said.
Garrity said there’s “no science that proves that thinning the watershed will fireproof it.”
Daley said the purpose of the watershed plan is not to fireproof the drainages, but to reduce the intensity and severity of a wildfire.
“We’re recognizing that a fire will happen in those drainages,” Daley said. “It is inevitable that it will happen… We just want it to be more controllable and less extensive and severe.”
The conservation groups were also concerned that logging projects would threaten habitat for lynx and grizzly bears and would destroy habitat for other old growth-dependent species.
“The Forest Service is determined to force bulldozers, logging trucks and helicopters into the Sourdough Creek, Hyalite Creek and South Cottonwood Creek drainages,” said Steve Kelly of the alliance. “We are equally determined to protect the outstanding wildlife habitat, water quality and recreational opportunities these federal public lands provide to Bozeman residents and visitors who rightfully expect to encounter nature in a peaceful and quiet forest landscape.”
The East Boulder project would be located outside Big Timber, Daley said, and is intended to increase safety for firefighters and the public, as the drainage has only one way in and out.
She said the Forest Service feels both projects were fully analyzed and concerns were addressed.
“The Forest Service worked very hard to listen to their concerns during all the public input, not just during the appeal and litigation,” Daley said. “We’ve invested a substantial amount of time and energy to be responsive to their concerns.”
She noted that the Bozeman watershed plan was seven years in the making, and three years were spent planning the East Boulder project.
“We believe these are very important projects with great benefits to the public,” Daley said. “We’ve worked hard to address individuals’ and organizations’ complaints and concerns. It is a bit disappointing that we’re to the place where it appears the only resolution we can find with these groups is in the courtroom.”
She said the Forest Service plans to move forward with both projects, which could begin this summer or fall.