AWR Blog

by Molly Villamana, Greenwire reporter

Roughly 35 million board feet of timber slated for harvest in Montana’s Lolo National Forest will remain standing unless state regulators establish water quality standards for rivers and streams affected by the logging and other related restoration projects, a U.S. District judge ruled last week.

Judge Donald Molloy ordered a halt to all projects associated with the Forest Service’s proposed restoration of thousands of acres of burned timberland harmed during the 2000 wildfire season. Besides logging, the plan calls for watershed restoration projects, treatment for insect infestation and noxious weeds, mine reclamations, dam removal and road de-commissionings.

Both the Forest Service and officials with the state of Montana expressed frustration with the ruling, saying it forces them to abandon the Lolo post-burn project.

With ramifications that some say could be felt nationwide, Molloy’s decision requires Montana to complete the laborious task of establishing the total maximum daily loads (TMDLs) for each of the affected the waterways. The Montana TMDLs would essentially establish best management practices for the agency to prevent sediment from flowing into the waterways. But such assessments are complicated and often difficult to nail down because pollutants come from various sources.

“Each stream can be affected by lots of different problems,” said Carole Mackin, information and education specialist for the Montana Department of Environmental Quality. Setting TMDLs, Mackin said, “is an elaborate process. We go through the whole gamut of trying to understand the environment we’re working in.”

Under a previous Molloy order, Montana’s DEQ is working under a tight timeline to design TMDLs for other waterways. If the Forest Service decides to go through with the Lolo post-burn project, Mackin said, “We’d probably need to drop everything” to complete TMDLs for six streams identified in Molloy’s Lolo decision.

Mackin and Chris Partyka, the Forest Service’s project team leader, noted that Montana is one of many state working to establish TMDLs, and suggested that the ruling could have implications in other areas. “This has the potential for stopping all activities in western Montana and in fact all activities across the Northwest or even the entire country that are occurring in TMDL drainages,” Partyka said. “I know the state of Montana is nervous,” he added.

The Forest Service designed the Lolo post-burn project for more than just timber salvage. Partyka said the project places emphasis on land and watershed restoration, and working with communities to address ecosystem issues on a larger scale. In addition to logging 35 MBF of timber, of which USFS considers 60 percent salvage and 40 percent green commercial thinning, the post-burn project calls for decommissioning or eliminating 287 miles of roads, resizing 108 culverts to increase fish passage and removing part of a dam on Flat Creek that impedes fish passage.

Controversy consumed the project after the Forest Service acknowledged that its restoration effort would result in a short-term increase in the amount of sediment going into streams. The service argued that within 10 years the sediment would decrease, leaving streams and fish healthier and the forests free of some of the hazardous fuels now threatening it.

Despite the purported long-term benefits, the Sierra Club and Alliance for the Wild Rockies filed a lawsuit challenging the project, saying the Forest Service could not engage in activities that increased sediment in already-impaired streams, even if the effects were short-term.

The groups charged that that the increased sediment would further harm the threatened bull trout and other species of concern. They also argued that the Lolo forest is an important corridor for grizzly bears and habitat for the threatened Canada lynx, which could also be affected by the projects. Finally, the lawsuit alleged that USFS did not adequately study the impacts the work would have on roadless areas.

Molloy agreed with environmentalists on the water quality issue, saying that Montana failed to establish a baseline for how much sediment the rivers could handle, something the TMDL would provide. “Without a baseline, there is no way but speculation to determine how the sediment impacts water quality, adversely or beneficially,” Molloy wrote in his opinion. “By deciding to carry out this project in watersheds with already compromised streams, without knowing the exact condition and capacity to cope of those streams, the approval of the Lolo Post-Burn project is arbitrary and capricious within the terms of the [Administrative Procedures Act].”

Regarding roadless areas, Molloy sided with the government, writing “The record shows that the Forest Service considered the impacts of the post-burn project on unroaded areas to the extent required by law.”

Partyka disagreed with Molloy’s ruling on TMDLs. He said the service conducts extensive modeling to show what pollutant loads a stream can handle. “Based on modeling, we know what the [pollution] budget is,” Partyka said. He also said the law defining TMDLs specifies that “if you apply conservation measures, you can conduct activities before a TMDL is completed.” He said the post-burn project was designed to reduce sediment and includes extensive mandatory best management practices.

“Molloy’s basically saying there’s no way to ever improve a stream if you’re not going to accept short-term sediment,” Partyka said. “After two years of hard work to turn out a balanced ecosystem management project that represented all of the varying public interests and resource needs, it is discouraging to end up with this type of court decision.”

Mike Garrity, executive director of the Alliance for the Wild Rockies, categorized the project as “mostly a salvage sale from the fires in 2000.” He said the “purpose was to cut burned timber,” some of which existed in roadless areas and areas essentially treated as roadless.

Garrity also expressed concern about the cost of the project. “They were going to lose $2.8 million on the timber sale alone,” he said, not accounting for the costs of the restoration efforts, which would have increased the burden upon taxpayers.

Bob Wolf, a retired USFS forester and former Bureau of Land Management employee, agreed with Garrity. His own cash flow analysis based on data from forest records and timber cut and sale records indicates that every timber project in the Lolo has lost money, he said. Wolf said losses last year reached $1,436 an acre, with the service spending $5.7 million more in 2002 than it brought in from timber projects. Wolf added that the Lolo post-burn project would lose even more money because the restoration efforts and roadbuilding expenses were not figured in.

But Partyka said the service designed the timber portion of the project to pay for itself, recognizing there would be an economic loss from the watershed restoration work.

Originally published on Greenwire.

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