by Jim Mann, The Daily Inter Lake
Environmental groups have sued to stop pre-commercial thinning work on the Flathead National Forest, raising arguments that are similar to those applied in two previous lawsuits targeting timber sales.
The Alliance for the Wild Rockies, Friends of the Wild Swan and the Native Ecosystems Council filed the lawsuit May 29 in U.S. District Court in Missoula.
It challenges a recently approved project that involves pre-commercial thinning on 3,650 acres spread across the Flathead Forest.
The plaintiffs largely focus on the project’s impacts on designated “critical habitat” for lynx and bull trout, and they allege the project was approved without adequate analysis and public review.
“The Flathead National Forest is moving ahead with this large logging project in lynx and bull trout critical habitat without analyzing and disclosing the ecological impacts to the public,” said Michael Garrity, executive director of the Alliance for the Wild Rockies.
Joe Krueger, the Flathead Forest’s environmental coordinator, refuted the work being described as a “large logging project” when it will involve removing trees 2 to 4 inches in diameter from thick, overgrown stands for the purpose of improving the growth and health of remaining trees.
“These are thick carpets of trees,” Krueger said, adding that the project will not produce commercial timber. “The stands that are thinned will be piled up and burned right on site.”
Krueger explained that the project was approved through a “categorical exclusion” rule that allows the Forest Service to bypass an environmental assessment review process. It is fairly common for projects deemed to have low impacts. But the plaintiffs contend the project warrants more thorough review.
“The public notice was vague and did not provide adequate information on the effects of this project,” said Arlene Montgomery, program director for Friends of the Wild Swan. “It did not provide accurate maps or a description of where the 3,650 treatment acres were located.”
Krueger said forest staff went above and beyond normal categorical exclusion work in providing additional information and maps, and they met with the plaintiffs several times during the administrative appeal process.
“Based on the lack of information and analysis as well as other issues we raised in our comments, we do not believe that this project qualifies for a categorical exclusion,” Montgomery said. “Extraordinary circumstances exist and the Flathead failed to take a hard look at the cumulative effects to sensitive, threatened and endangered species and other forest resources.”
Cumulative effects and critical habitat designations for lynx and bull trout that were approved by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service over the last few years are also common themes in lawsuits brought by environmental groups to stop two logging projects on the Spotted Bear Ranger District.
Krueger said it is obvious the groups are attempting to apply critical habitat as a new legal weapon.
“They think that [critical habitat] affords additional protections, but we already have management direction in place to ensure the recovery of those species,” he said.
A lawsuit challenging the Soldier Addition II project was filed in April, and a lawsuit challenging the Spotted Bear River Project was filed in February. Both projects, located on opposite sides of the South Fork Flathead River, would each involve harvesting 8 million board feet of timber over several years.
Considering that the Flathead Forest offers about 27 million board feet in timber sales annually, Krueger said the two projects are a significant part of the forest’s timber program.
Regardless of the litigation, Krueger said, the first timber sales for the projects will be advertised later this month, but he fully expects the plaintiffs to seek injunctions to halt logging until the cases are decided.