by Eve Byron, Independent Record
It’s back to the drawing board for a portion of the Benchmark Fuels Reduction Project along the Rocky Mountain Front near Augusta.
For the second time, a hearings officer has sided with two environmental groups — the Alliance for the Wild Rockies and the Native Ecosystems Council — in saying the plan wasn’t adequate, and reversed the decision by Mike Munoz, the Rocky Mountain District ranger, to go forward with the 763-acre project.
Chuck Mark, a deputy forest supervisor who reviewed the administrative appeal, wrote that he “found the analysis does not adequately address consistency with the Forest Plan” in two areas, which was an issue raised by the appellants, and recommended the district ranger’s decision be reversed.
Lewis and Clark Forest Supervisor Spike Thompson did that, but added that he’s going to deny other relief they requested, which included withdrawing the “Finding of No Significant Impact” and undertaking a full-blown Environmental Impact Statement on the project.
Dave Cunningham, the forest’s spokesman, said he’s not sure if they’ll proceed with the project, or if further analysis will be done.
“We’ll have to see whether we have the resources to continue with this project, or whether we should stand down for a period of time,” Cunningham said on Monday. “The concerns about fuels, firefighter safety and recreational cabins remains, but we haven’t made a decision yet on what to do.”
The environmental groups appealed the Benchmark timber sale because it authorized logging and burning across 763 acres, which they contended violated a host of federal laws as well as the agency’s own Forest Plan.
Mike Garrity, executive director of the Helena-based Alliance for the Wild Rockies, said they won the appeal because the decision violated the Forest Plan direction for protecting wildlife in two management areas.
“The Forest Service was trying to use an illegal exception to log lynx critical habitat to remove what it calls ‘fuels.’ But the end result is that the agency is actually removing wildlife habitat,” Garrity said. “Since the project would have logged and burned lynx, grizzly bear and goshawk habitat, we felt the appeal was necessary and, as it turns out, the appeals officer agreed with us.”
They previously successfully appealed the timber sale on grounds it wouldn’t improve wildlife habitat or protect houses from wildfires, which the Forest Service said was one of the benefits. The project called for logging more than 150 feet away from homes and cabins, yet leaving some trees standing near the homes because the residents’ liked the privacy the trees provided, according to Garrity. He said studies showed that logging more than 150 feet from homes didn’t provide any additional protection.
He adds that he’s not opposed to tree removal, but he wants to see it done correctly.
“We’d really like to see the Forest Service redesign it to follow the law and the agency’s own Forest Plan instead of just getting out the cut,” Garrity said.
The recommendation to reverse the decision approving the project can be found at www.fs.fed.us/appeals/appeals_list.php?r=110100