by Richard Ecke, Tribune Staff Writer
Some 763 acres of forests in the Benchmark area west of Augusta would not be logged or burned under the reversal of an earlier U.S. Forest Service decision.
“We’re pleased to announce that the Forest Service has reversed its decision to proceed with the Benchmark Project,” said Michael Garrity, executive director of the Helena-based Alliance for the Wild Rockies, in a news release Monday. “This is good news for lynx, grizzlies, goshawks and other old growth dependent species, since the project would have logged habitat critical to those species.”
Proponents of the project expressed disappointment with the decision.
“It was a very small-scale deal,” said Joe Perry, a Brady farmer with a cabin in the Sun River area. “Any damage that I could possibly foresee was minor.”
The Alliance for the Wild Rockies and Native Ecosystems Council appealed the Benchmark timber sale because it authorized 763 acres of logging and burning, which they contended violated federal laws and the agency’s Forest Plan. The Benchmark trailhead on the Rocky Mountain Front is a popular place for horse riders and hikers to begin trips into the Bob Marshall Wilderness Area.
If proponents of logging want to pursue the project, “the Forest Service has to start all over,” Garrity said Monday in a telephone interview. “It’s over now.”
Sara Johnson, executive director of the Native Ecosystems Council, said the decision will safeguard five nesting sites of goshawks and not disturb habitat of small animals that are preyed upon by lynx, such as snowshoe hares, cottontail and jack rabbits and ground squirrels.
Rocky Mountain District Ranger Michael Munoz last December decided to proceed with the logging project, but the two groups appealed.
Last Tuesday, an appeals review officer recommended Munoz’s decision be reversed, writing “the analysis does not adequately address consistency with the Forest Plan with respect to Management Areas E and H.”
“This is the second time we have appealed this project,” Garrity commented. “We’d really like to see the Forest Service redesign it to follow the law and the agency’s own Forest Plan.”
Proponents have argued logging in the Benchmark area would reduce the danger of devastating fires in the area, already affected by beetles killing trees. Several conservation and sporting groups endorsed the proposal.
Perry was disappointed by the ruling.
“The Forest Service has put in a great deal of effort on this,” Perry said. “It just wasn’t a bad project.”
He said the plan was to reduce fire danger in “a long narrow band right along the road” near where cabins are located. Perry said there is already significant human activity and noise in the area, although he conceded there would be “some species disruption” that would be minor.
Garrity contended the Forest Service was “not following their own fire expert’s advice” in the matter.
In this dispute, the appeals officer sided with opponents of the project.
“We’re thrilled,” Garrity said Monday.
Project proponents noted a 2007 Ahorn fire burned more than 50,000 acres in the Benchmark area and cost $17 million to fight, and contended more should be done to try to reduce the severity of fires on the Rocky Mountain Front.
“Somewhere along the way we have to be able to plan fire management (and habitat management),” Perry said.
“This was a sensible fire management project,” said Jared White, spokesman for the Bozeman-based Wilderness Society, one of several conservation groups that backed the project. “It does look like it has been halted.”
White called it “irresponsible” for groups to appeal timber sales and “stop this cold dead.”
White added he thinks the Forest Service should have been given a chance to demonstrate it could operate the Benchmark project responsibly, rather than “tying their hands” and killing the project.