by Karl Puckett, Tribune Staff Writer
Two conservation organizations are suing the U.S. Forest Service over a plan to log mountain pine beetle-infested trees in the Little Belt Mountains.
Lewis and Clark National Forest contends that with the infested trees at risk of falling over, the work is necessary to protect the public.
In a lawsuit filed Monday in federal court in Missoula, the Alliance for Wild Rockies and Native Ecosystems Council question the severity of the mountain pine beetle hazard and say the Forest Service should have completed more environmental review of the impact of the logging on wildlife habitat before approving the work.
The groups contend pine beetles have infested patches of the forest but not all of it.
Michael Garrity, executive director of the Alliance for the Wild Rockies, said the groups agree the Forest Service has a responsibility to maintain roads for public safety “but here we’re not sure there’s really a hazard.”
The public needs to be shown that a real safety hazard exists and that the project is not an excuse to allow more logging, Garrity said.
The lawsuit also says the agency illegally used a loophole in the rules called “categorical exclusion” in approving the work.
The exclusion, which requires less environmental review, can be used if a determination is made that the projects won’t significantly harm the environment.
The groups say in the lawsuit that the 17,000-acre logging and herbicide spraying project is outside of the scope of activities to which categorical exclusions should apply and violates the National Environmental Protection Act.
“Categorical exclusions were intended for purposes such as mowing the lawn at the ranger station or painting outhouses, not logging over 17,000 acres,” Garrity said.
At issue is a Forest Service plan to remove “hazard trees” killed by mountain pine beetles within a total project area of 17,000 acres in the Little Belt Mountains southeast of Great Falls.
Targeted would be trees located 1.5 trees lengths from 58 recreation residences, 157 campgrounds and trails, five radio towers and along 575 miles of roads.
Some 1,238 acres of the logging would occur in a roadless area, and work also is planned along seven miles of road in the Middle Fork Judith Wilderness Study Area and on two miles of road in two research natural areas.
“By mitigating hazard trees we’re attempting to do our duty to maintain public safety while allowing the public to continue to access their national forest,” said Dave Cunningham, a spokesman with the forest. “We will now take a step back, analyze the suit and work with our attorneys regarding the next steps.”
When it approved the project in March, Forest Supervisor Bill Avey said public safety was driving the work.
The written decision OKing the project says advancement of the mountain pine beetle epidemic has resulted in high levels of tree mortality with falling trees posing a hazard to the public and forest workers.
During the administrative appeals process, the Forest Service wrote that treated units would range from resembling a thinning of a forest to a clear cut with scattered regeneration. Large clear cuts are not part of the plan, it said.
Since the project was approved, a few hazard trees have been removed in campgrounds, but no ground-disturbing work or commercial timber sales have occurred yet, Cunningham said.
Additional environmental review is called for because logging and herbicide spraying could harm streams that support habitat for west slope cutthroat trout and the western toad, which are considered sensitive species, according to the Alliance for the Wild Rockies and Native Ecosystems Council.
The lawsuit argues logging old growth trees could harm habitat for several animal and bird species including lynx, wolverine and the northern goshawk and increase the spread of noxious weeds.
The groups are asking that the court find that Forest Service violated the law and block implementation of the project.
Appeals and litigation are parts of the public process in making forest management decisions, the Forest Service’s Cunningham said.