by Laura Lundquist, Chronicle Staff Writer
Environmental groups have sued to stop a logging project near Bridger Bowl Ski Area, claiming it would destroy too much wildlife habitat. But a new federal rule could make it harder for them to win.
On Wednesday, the Alliance for the Wild Rockies and the Native Ecosystems Council filed a lawsuit in Missoula federal court to stop the U.S. Forest Service from starting work on the South Bridger Interface Project.
The project, which received final approval on Aug. 8, would log up to 250 acres within a 1,847-acre area along the lower eastern slopes of the Bridger Mountains south of the ski area and west of Highway 86. The area has been infested by Western spruce budworm and mountain pine beetle.
The two organizations asked a federal judge to halt the project and order a more in-depth environmental study of how the project would affect area wildlife.
“This area is some of the best mule deer habitat in Montana,” said Steve Kelly, an Alliance for the Wild Rockies board member. “It is very puzzling why the Forest Service wants to destroy it.”
Forest Service spokeswoman Marna Daley said bidding on the project was supposed to open on Thursday. Forest Service attorneys would need to review the lawsuit to determine whether the bidding or other activity could move forward, Daley said.
The environmental assessment, completed in May, said the thinning operations were intended to limit future insect damage and detailed how loggers would use ground equipment to remove dead and dying Douglas fir and lodgepole pine and enough live trees to leave a 20-foot gap between surviving trees.
Some of the targeted areas are along the ski area’s southern runs while most are just north of Pine Creek.
To get tractors into project areas, loggers would have to build a total of a half-mile of temporary roads, mainly short spurs from existing roads into treatment areas.
The Forest Service sprayed 500 acres in the area for spruce budworm in 2010 and 2013 but claimed that it was too expensive to continue spraying indefinitely.
As more people have built homes in Bridger Canyon, wildfire has also become a bigger concern.
But in their lawsuit, AWR and NEC claim the logging could affect six wildlife species, including wolverines, mule deer and moose, and their habitat.
They claim the Forest Service failed to follow federal law, including the National Environmental Policy Act, when it didn’t adequately investigate how the project could affect those species when added to the other disturbance in the canyon.
They also claimed that project would violate the Gallatin National Forest management plan’s requirement of maintaining at least two-thirds of hiding cover in critical habitat areas such as foraging areas and migration routes.
The Forest Service overruled them when they made similar claims earlier this year, first as part of the public comment period and again when they lodged a more in-depth objection after it was approved in May.
In his Aug. 8 response, after NEC representatives refused his offer of a resolution meeting, deputy regional forester David Schmid dismissed a number of their objections, mainly because they didn’t raise specifics during their first round of comments.
“Upon reviewing your comments and the issues now raised in objection, I find no reason why you could not have been more specific in your comments on the analysis,” Schmid wrote.
The 2014 Farm Bill created new rules curtailing the appeals process on federal projects, including a requirement that only those who participate in the public-comment process can raise an objection later. The Forest Service has taken that one step further in refusing to accept objections that include details that arise after the first round of comments, said AWR executive director Mike Garrity.
“You can only raise issues addressed in your comments. But that’s a hard thing to do. We have to predict the future about what they might add to their decision. We can’t do that so we just add general comments like, ‘This is important moose winter range.’ And they say, ‘Well, that’s not specific enough,'” Garrity said.
Garrity said Schmid threw out AWR’s objections completely for that reason. That could cause the court to question AWR’s standing in the lawsuit, but Garrity said he’d fight that.
“He said I wasn’t participating in the spirit of the law, which was to help them to design a timber sale,” Garrity said. “I told him, ‘There’s nothing in the law that says I have to help you design a timber sale. I’m never going to agree with you.’ ”