by Rob Chaney
Ah, the difference two letters make.
A U.S. District Court judge rejected a new version of the Colt-Summit forest project near Seeley Lake because the U.S. Forest Service didn’t follow his instructions.
“The summary judgment order plainly requires the Forest Service to prepare a supplemental environmental assessment (emphasis added),” Judge Don Molloy wrote in his opinion Wednesday. “The Service didn’t do so. Instead it prepared what it called a ‘supplement to the environmental assessment.'”
The case involves a new kind of forest project developed in collaboration with timber companies, environmentalists and local residents along the divide between the Clearwater and Swan river drainages. The Friends of the Wild Swan, Alliance for the Wild Rockies, Native Ecosystems Council and Montana Ecosystems Defense Council collectively sued the Lolo National Forest over the project, arguing it threatened old-growth stands needed by grizzly bears and lynx.
Molloy threw out almost all of the environmental groups’ case except for one issue, where he ordered the Forest Service to do more work explaining how the plan would affect lynx habitat. The Forest Service sent in new material and asked Molloy to let the project go forward.
But Molloy wrote he specifically asked for a new supplemental environmental assessment as required by the National Environmental Policy Act. Providing public comment and following some of NEPA’s other procedures doesn’t make a required NEPA document, he said.
“This decision has nothing to do with the quality or adequacy of the Service’s lynx analysis,” Molloy wrote. “The Service might very well have produced a substantially useful cumulative effects analysis. But regardless of the quality of the analysis, the Service has to follow the procedures required by law and this Court’s previous order. Until the Service does so, the Court will not consider a motion to dissolve the injunction.”
“(T)he Forest Service argues that it solicited public comment for the supplement to the EA (environmental assessment), so the document should be sufficient,” Molloy wrote. “Not so.”
“This is a good ruling not only for lynx but for taxpayers,” Alliance for the Wild Rockies director Michael Garrity said in an email. “The Colt Summit Project was nothing more than corporate welfare that would have cost taxpayers over $2 million dollars.”
Project participant and Seeley Lake Fire Chief Frank Maradeo said the project deserved to move ahead.
“This is a bad outcome for the fire safety of my community and the long-term viability of the wildlife habitat this project would restore,” Maradeo said in an email. “We thought the Forest Service had met what was required of them and it’s a sad day for our forests when even a collaboratively developed project that is grounded in good science can be delayed by a minor procedural point.”