by Eve Byron, Independent Record
A proposed project that includes logging, roadwork and weed spraying on national forest land north of Seeley Lake is pitting a wide-ranging array of organizations against four environmental groups that filed a lawsuit opposing the work.
On Monday, organizations including the Seeley Lake fire department, the National Wildlife Federation, the Montana Wilderness Association, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and Lewis and Clark, Missoula and Powell counties all filed legal briefs supporting the five-year project on 4,330 acres of the Lolo National Forest. Representatives of those groups said that the “unprecedented interest in the case marks the first time such a large and diverse number of groups and individuals have ever assembled to defend a forest restoration project in the court of law.”
“We decided to get involved because this is a science-based decision and we had our staff truth-test it,” said Jean Curtiss, a Missoula County commissioner. “This area is such a unique, intact ecosystem, with all the plants and animals there that were there when Lewis and Clark came through.”
During a news conference Tuesday, representatives from some of those groups said the logging, burning and road treatments are direly needed to restore forest health and create a better habitat for wild animals that include endangered lynx, bull trout and grizzly bear, while at the same time lessening the threat of wildfires near communities.
“In the summer of 2007 we had the Jocko Lakes fire that covered 31,000 acres and cost $40 million,” said Frank Maradeo, the Seeley Lake fire chief. “We evacuated 85 percent of the community during that fire. This project, the Colt Summit, is at the north end of our fire district.”
They also pointed out that the project is a collaborative effort among a wide range of interests, including loggers, timber mills, environmental groups, community members and local, state and federal officials.
“What we are focused on doing is what’s best for the ground,” said Megan Birzell with The Wilderness Society. “There may be some cases where the best thing to do is to try to stop a project, but we think a better approach and one that’s more successful, rewarding and fulfilling is to seek positive solutions on the ground, recognizing there are places where active management is needed and is appropriate.”
Groups behind lawsuit
But Michael Garrity, executive director of the Helena-based Alliance for the Wild Rockies, disagrees that the site near
Seeley Lake is the place for these types of management activities. That’s why his organization, along with the Friends of the Wild Swan, Montana Ecosystems Defense Council and the Native Ecosystems Council filed a lawsuit in federal court in November to try to stop the work.
“It’s not the right place for a timber sale,” Garrity said. “It’s critical lynx habitat. And if the whole idea is to protect the wildland urban interface — it’s 10 miles north of Seeley Lake and there’s no community there. There are plenty of places around Seeley Lake where they could do logging, but this is just the wrong location.”
He added that he and others believe the Environmental Assessment done on the project violated the Endangered Species Act, the National Environmental Policy Act and the National Forest Management Act.
The project calls for logging and burning on about 2,038 acres; decommissioning or restoring 25 miles of road; restoring four miles of streamside road and rerouting the access; reconstructing five miles of road; and conducting noxious weed herbicide treatments along 34 miles of national forest roads and on six acres of existing infestations.
In a brief filed by Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks, the state agency said the project will have clear benefits for fish and wildlife.
“The Colt Summit Project will significantly increase the amount of secure lynx and grizzly habitat within an important riparian corridor, will remove roads that are sending sediment into a native trout stream, and will maintain sufficient cover to allow a variety of wildlife species to continue to move through the area,” said Jay Kolbe, an FWP wildlife biologist. “This project is thoughtfully planned out, grounded in good science and long overdue.”