by Daniel Person, Chronicle Staff Writer
A logging project in the Crazy Mountains has been halted by the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals, which found this week that the Gallatin National Forest did not follow its own rules when it drew out the plans.
The Smith Creek Timber Sale would affect 800 acres of forest on the west side of the Crazy Mountains, about 35 miles north of Livingston.
The Forest Service pitched the plan as a way to reduce the fire risk posed to the Smith Creek subdivision, which is made up of 30 summer and year-round homes. In addition to logging, the project included 300 acres of prescribed burns. The Gallatin National Forest also said the project would help improve habitat diversity by maintaining meadow and aspen groves.
It its ruling, the Ninth Circuit rejected most claims made by plaintiffs Native Ecosystem Council, the Alliance for the Wild Rockies and Sharon Hapner, who owns a cabin in the area. But it did find that the Forest Service is not taking strong enough action to ensure elk cover is preserved over time and remanded the plan to the Forest Service. Specifically, it found the plan did not ensure two-thirds of elk hiding cover would be preserved.
This is the second time the Smith Creek project has been halted by federal judges. Judge Donald Molloy rejected the plan in 2008 because of concerns over elk habitat, and then accepted the project after the forest service addressed his concerns.
When Molloy allowed the plan to go forward, plaintiffs appealed to the Ninth Circuit. Plaintiffs, celebrating the ruling, said elk cover is already sparse in the area because of past logging and the Smith Creek project would make things worse.
“The elk trying to move through the area feel so insecure that they try to quickly sneak through at night in small, dispersed groups,” said Sara Johnson, director of Native Ecosystems Council. She is also a former biologist for the Gallatin Forest. “Obviously, removing even more hiding cover for these already-stressed animals would have been unacceptable.”