by Laura Lundquist, Chronicle Staff Writer
Environmental groups are suing the U.S. Forest Service to stop a West Yellowstone logging project intended to be the first to not require public comment under the new Farm Bill.
On Thursday, Alliance for the Wild Rockies and the Native Ecosystems Council filed a lawsuit to stop the Rendezvous Ski Trails Project, which would log 250 acres on the southwest outskirts of West Yellowstone.
Hebgen Lake District Ranger Cavan Fitzsimmons announced the March 13 decision to proceed with the project one month after the 2014 Farm Bill had been signed into law.
Public scoping for the project started in November 2012, but the Forest Service decision concluded that the project qualified for a categorical exclusion from having an environmental study.
Previous exemptions allowed logging projects to avoid public input if they would reduce insect infestation, don’t exceed 250 acres and require less than a half-mile of new temporary roads. But they could be appealed.
The new Farm Bill extends those exemptions to 3,000 acres and allows no appeal.
At that time, Fitzsimmons said thinning was important to reduce fire danger in the wildland-urban interface near West Yellowstone and that it would create a more diverse forest stand near the ski trails. The stand is now mainly dense lodgepole pine of similar age.
The Forest Service concluded the project would have insignificant effects on the environment.
AWR president Mike Garrity said the project jumped the gun on using the Farm Bill exemption.
The law required that the governor of each state nominate forestlands that would qualify for the exemption before it could be applied.
In early April, Gov. Steve Bullock sent a letter to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, nominating 5.1 million acres in Montana for the exemption. USDA Secretary Tom Vilsack approved the nominations on May 20, two months after the Forest Service approved the Rendezvous Trails project.
The lawsuit claims the Forest Service and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service also violated the Endangered Species Act, because the area is known grizzly bear and lynx habitat. But the project area may be too close to human habitation for lynx.
It could also affect the wolverine, which is slated to be listed under the Endangered Species Act.
“Even if the Forest Service waited until the Farm Bill went into effect, this logging would still violate the Endangered Species Act and the agency’s own forest plan, which prohibits building new logging roads in grizzly bear habitat,” Garrity said.
Grizzly bears are still under endangered species protections, although the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is considering taking the Yellowstone population off the list. Grizzly bears regularly wander out of Yellowstone National Park and pass through the West Yellowstone area into the Centennial Valley.
The lawsuit asks a Missoula federal district court to stop the project and require biological assessments related to lynx, wolverines and grizzly bears.
An earlier version of this story misreported the acreage of projects the new Farm Bill exempts from public comment periods. The new Farm Bill expands the old exemptions to projects of a maximum 3,000 acres.