by Gazette Staff
A federal judge has ordered the Forest Service to halt implementation of a logging project in the largest island of public land in southeastern Montana and to issue a supplemental environmental impact statement to address deficiencies in its first one.
On Monday, District Judge Donald Molloy ruled in favor of the Alliance for the Wild Rockies and Native Ecosystems Council on some of their complaints filed in July, and dismissed others.
Molloy found in favor of the environmental groups concerning the failure of the EIS to consider stormwater runoff from road construction. Molloy also said the Forest Service failed to explain why it analyzed road density only at the project level and ranger district level, why it applied the road density standard only to forest land and for failing to analyze road density during the project’s implementation.
The project is proposed for the Ashland District of the Custer National Forest, located 17 miles east of Ashland and north of Highway 212 in Powder River County. The forest is popular with big game and turkey hunters, providing one of the few public land hunts for elk in the southeastern corner of the state.
“This ruling is a win for elk and a win for clean water,” said Mike Garrity, executive director of the Alliance for the Wild Rockies, in a statement. “The court agreed with us that the Forest Service failed to properly consider the impacts of the 35 miles of new roads on elk and water quality, including the project’s impacts from stormwater runoff.”
The Forest Service proposed the project to reduce the potential for large wildland fires by removing ladder fuels, spreading out the canopy between mature trees and getting rid of dense understory. The thinning would also reduce the spread of mountain pine beetles, the agency claimed. The Beaver Creek project, approved by Ashland District Ranger Walt Allen last March, proposed to commercially log 1,487 acres, and set prescribed fire to 8,054 acres. To facilitate the projects, about 35 miles of road construction and reconstruction would be required. After the project is completed, the Forest Service proposed closing some of the routes to enhance big game security.
The Beaver Creek project is a combination of two other litigated projects that were designed separately — the 2007 Whitetail and 2008 East Otter fuels reduction plans. Those plans were withdrawn after the Forest Service decided they didn’t meet the standards for categorical exclusion, which would have allowed the projects to proceed with minimal environmental review.
The environmental groups have appealed the project twice and sued once, setting the stage for the latest proposal, which the Forest Service contended was modified to meet the groups’ concerns.
“This is a prime example of bureaucratic inertia,” Garrity said. “The Forest Service figures it has already dumped so much time into this very bad project that it must go forward regardless of the legal problems and the exorbitant waste of taxpayer money that will come with the $1 million price tag for project implementation. But like the rest of us, federal agencies are required to follow the law and the court has now ordered the Forest Service to do exactly that.”