by Eric Barker
The timber industry is hailing a federal judge’s decision to require a coalition of environmental groups to risk losing money if their effort to stop a logging project in Montana is determined to be without merit.
But environmental groups say the requirement sets a dangerous precedent of limiting judicial recourse to the wealthy.
Last week Judge Donald Molloy said the environmental groups Alliance for the Wild Rockies, the Ecology Center and the Native Ecosystem Alliance must post a $100,000 bond if they want him to impose a restraining order on a logging project near Butte. The groups would forfeit the money if they lose the lawsuit and the litigation causes a delay that leads to a loss in the value of the timber.
Those in the timber industry say requiring bonds on logging lawsuits would make environmental groups think before they sue.
“I think it’s a great thing,” said Dick Wilhite, resource manager of the Bennett Forest Industries mill at Elk City. “I think it would eliminate a lot of frivolous lawsuits.”
Tim Partin of the American Forest Resource Council at Portland said timber companies are required to post bonds when they bid on timber sales and when they log federal forests.
“If a group is trying to tie up a sale or stall it, I think it’s only fair they have to put up a bond to do the same thing,” he said. “In the past, the environmental groups have never had any downside risk.”
Bonds are often required in civil cases where one party wants to stop the actions of another, according to Doug Honnold an Earthjustice attorney at Bozeman who is not involved in the case. But he said judges generally wave bonds in lawsuits where nonprofit environmental groups take on the federal government.
“You are not making any money in trying to get the federal government to follow the law,” he said. “If you start attaching bonds — especially sizable bonds — that basically says the only way to get the government to follow the law is if you have the financial wherewithal to come foreword and pay money and risk losing that money.”
The environmental groups in the case are making that argument. Michael Garrity of the Alliance for the Wild Rockies at Helena said, “We think all American citizens should be concerned. If we lose our appeal it will mean citizens in general will have their First Amendment rights to petition the government affected. It’s chipping away at the Bill of Rights.”
If the judge feels the group’s claims don’t have merit he could simply dismiss the case or deny the request for a restraining order, Garrity said.
In this case the government has proposed logging in an area where insects are killing trees. It argues a delay in the logging could cause the insects to spread and lead to a loss of timber value.
According to the Missoulian newspaper, the Forest Service awarded a contract to a logging company. The groups sued to stop the project last summer. Molloy put a halt to the logging until the case was heard.
He ruled in favor of the Forest Service, and the environmental groups appealed. Again they asked for Molloy to stop the logging until the case could be resolved. Again Molloy agreed. But this time the Forest Serviced asked him to require the bond.
The environmental groups are appealing the bond requirement and the entire case is before the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals.