contact Michael Garrity, Executive Director, Alliance for the Wild Rockies, (406) 459-5936
Last week the Forest Service withdrew its decision to go forward with the Whitetail Hazardous Fuels Reduction Project on the Custer National Forest in Montana. Two local conservation groups, the Alliance for the Wild Rockies and Native Ecosystems Council, had filed a lawsuit on May 14, 2009 in Federal District Court in Montana against the U.S. Forest Service and its Region One Forester to stop the Project. The Project had authorized commercial logging of 1,797 acres of old, mature forests, including clear-cutting on 754 acres. The Project also authorized the construction and reconstruction of 20 miles of roads. The Project area was located 17 miles northeast of Ashland, Montana.
The Project was approved under the Healthy Forest Restoration Act, which allows the Forest Service to expedite environmental review of timber sale projects by foregoing the normal public comment and administrative appeal process. Michael Garrity, Executive Director of the Alliance for the Wild Rockies stated, “The Healthy Forest Restoration Act was meant for projects that focus on removing small diameter trees in the wildland-urban interface, not on clear-cutting large trees and future old growth habitat 17 miles away from the nearest community. This was a clear misuse of that Act.”
Dr. Sara Johnson, a former wildlife biologist for the Gallatin National Forest and Director of Native Ecosystems Council said, “We are pleased that this Project will not move forward. The Forest Service believes that there is already no old growth habitat left in the Ashland Ranger District of the Custer National Forest and this timber sale would have clear-cut over 750 acres of mature forest with large trees that is next in line to become old growth habitat.”
Another significant concern with the Project was degradation of elk habitat. According to comments from the Montana Department of Fish, Wildlife, and Parks, this project would have removed some of the best remaining cover in the area for big game species and failed to leave adequate remaining cover for them.
In the last few years, the Forest Service has withdrawn at least six timber sales in the Northern Rockies after it was sued and before the court had a chance to make a ruling: the Clear Prong and Upper Muir Projects on the Boise National Forest; the Price Powder and Barton Springs Projects on the Beaverhead-Deerlodge National Forest; the Newlan Bugs Project on the Lewis and Clark National Forest; and now the Whitetail Project on the Custer National Forest.
Garrity concluded: “We are happy that the Forest Service decided not to go ahead with this ecologically destructive project, but we are disheartened that we were forced to sue to make that happen. We hope that in the future the Forest Service will make decisions like this during the public comment process, instead of waiting for public interest groups like ours to sue them before they decide to comply with the law. Unfortunately the trend seems to be heading in the opposite direction with no repercussions for the agency.”