by Brett French of The Gazette Staff, French@billingsgazette.com or (406) 657-1387
Two environmental groups have sued for a second time to halt a timber sale and prescribed burn on the northwest side of the Crazy Mountains, despite changes made to the original plan to address concerns raised about elk habitat in the initial lawsuit.
The area of contention is near Smith Creek in the Gallatin National Forest, about 35 miles north of Livingston. The project would log 810 acres and burn another 300 acres in the Meadow Creek area to help protect about 30 summer and year-round residences in the area, as well as the only route to access the homes and cabins.
The Alliance for the Wild Rockies and Native Ecosystems Council filed suit Friday in U.S. District Court in Missoula to permanently enjoin the forest from proceeding with the sale. Sharon Hapner, a homeowner in the Smith Creek drainage for 30 years, is also a plaintiff.
They contend that the logging and fire will not only violate protections for elk habitat but also would remove 112 acres of old-growth timber and harm Yellowstone cutthroat trout in Smith Creek.
Judge Donald Molloy ruled in the groups’ favor in October on one portion of the original lawsuit, allowing that the Forest Service had not properly analyzed key elk habitat components in the project area. Molloy’s ruling halted the logging until further analysis was completed.
The Forest Service revised its study, incorporating information from the Department of Fish, Wildlife and Parks on the area’s elk habitat and in March ruled that it would proceed with the logging and prescribed fire without further modifications.
“There is no need to modify the original decision based on the supplemental information,” wrote Ron Archuleta, Livingston district ranger, in the supplemental environmental analysis.
The agency is accepting bids on the logging until Thursday.
“We still feel very confident in the original analysis effort and stand by that work,” said Marna Daley, public affairs officer for the Gallatin National Forest.
Although Molloy’s initial ruling found that the rest of the Forest Service’s plan had “complied with the law for the most part,” the environmental groups again raised their concerns about the project’s overall effects.
“It just doesn’t make any sense to encourage more logging in this area when we know that the logging will increase sedimentation and risk the extirpation of this critical trout population,” Michael Garrity, of the Alliance for the Wild Rockies, said in a prepared statement.
To lessen soil disturbance, the logging project would limit mechanized use to winter months and use a helicopter for some of the work. Hand-thinning would occur on portions of the sale. No new roads would be built, and roads in the area that remain from previous logging would be repaired for use and then rehabilitated and closed to motorized use.
The work should improve water quality in the drainage, the Forest Service contends.
The logging is in a Douglas fir and lodgepole pine forest. Part of the logging would limit encroachment of evergreens into meadows and allow regeneration of aspen.
But the environmental groups and Hapner argue that, although the Forest Service plans remediation work, much of it is dependent on funding that won’t come from the timber sale. They also say the condition of the land from previous logging is a reason to limit further disturbance.
“Considering the existing compromised condition of the area, it’s premature to move forward with another timber sale at this time,” Sara Johnson, director of Native Ecosystems Council, said in a prepared statement.
Daley said a weak timber market limits the ability of the forest to generate enough money from the logging sale to perform all of the remediation work, forcing managers to look for other funding sources. But she said the agency will replace four culverts on Smith Creek Road to aid in Yellowstone cutthroat trout passage as part of its stimulus funding, as well as perform work on the Shields River Road that will mitigate some of the stream sedimentation.
The agency completed some repair work on Smith Creek Road last year in preparation for the logging. Smith Creek is a tributary of the Shields River.