Suit Targets Montana's First Healthy Forest Restoration Act Plan

MISSOULA, Montana, April 27, 2006 (ENS) - Three conservation groups filed a lawsuit in federal district court in Missoula Wednesday, alleging that the first Healthy Forest Restoration Act project in Montana is illegal. The law, enacted in December 2003, is supposed to thin forests to prevent wildfires, but critics claim it is a thinly veiled excuse for extensive logging in the national forests.

Friends of the Bitterroot, Native Forest Network and the Ecology Center brought the lawsuit against the U.S. Forest Service and two of its employees in an attempt to protect the East Fork of the Bitterroot River, wildlife habitat, watersheds, soils and public process as related to the Bitterroot National Forest's Middle East Fork Hazardous Fuel Reduction project.

The project, which is expected to produce 11 million board feet of commercial timber, is located in of Ravalli County in western Montana.

Named as defendants in the lawsuit are Dave Bull, forest supervisor for the Bitterroot National Forest; Abigail Kimbell, regional forester of Region One of the U.S. Forest Service; and the U.S. Forest Service, an agency of the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

"We have spent the past month carefully going over the Bitterroot National Forest's decision for the Middle East Fork logging project. We believe that Bitterroot Supervisor Bull's decision violates the laws governing the management of our national forests," said Matthew Koehler, executive director of the Native Forest Network.

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Forest in the Middle East Fork treatment area (Photo courtesy Native Forest Network)
Announcing the logging decision, Bull said, The decision reflects my careful consideration of ideas and concerns raised by objectors and conclusions of recent court rulings, balanced with my strong commitment to the Middle East Fork community collaborative process and the priorities established in the Bitterroot Community Wildfire Protection Plan.

But in their lawsuit, the groups complain that Bull used armed guards to bar members of the public from a Forest Service press conference at the supervisor's office in Hamilton.

The groups argue that the East Fork project area is still recovering from "historic Forest Service mismanagement" including clearcutting, terracing and excessive roadbuilding.

Thirty-three percent of the entire analysis area has already been logged. The analysis area averages 5.2 miles of road per square mile, which dump 151 tons of sediment per year to streams within the project area.

The East Fork, running through the middle of the project area, is officially classified as an impaired stream because its excessive sediment load has compromised its ecological integrity. Several watersheds already exceed established thresholds for clearcutting, which threatens stream channel stability with increased runoff.

All planned East Fork logging units are in subwatersheds that already exceed legal limits for losses in soil productivity. Recent court rulings raise serious doubts about the legality of further disturbance of these already damaged landscapes, the groups maintain.

Opposition to the Bitterroot's East Fork logging plan has been widespread throughout the Missoula and Bitterroot Valleys. Three families who live in the East Fork community and citizens with roots so deep in the Bitterroot valley that ridges and lakes are named after their ancestors filed official objections to the logging plan.

Ph.D. faculty members at the University of Montana's School of Forestry with expertise in entomology, soils, fire and fuels, forest ecology, aquatics, fisheries and wildlife are opposed to this project and two of these scientists filed official objections to the project.

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The office of Bitterroot Forest Supervisor Dave Bull in Hamilton, Montana (Photo courtesy U.S. Forest Service)
The groups also contend that when Supervisor Bull released his logging decision on March 30, he and his staff "intentionally misled the public into thinking this decision was a 'balanced,' scaled-back proposal."

But, they point out, Bull's decision still includes nearly 3,000 acres of industrial logging in some of the best remaining pockets of unlogged, mature forests up the East Fork, inhabited by huge herds of elk, bighorn sheep and mule deer.

"We tried for the past 18 months to work with Supervisor Bull to implement an effective community fuel reduction project up the East Fork," said Koehler. "Our proposal - which was favored by 98 percent of the 13,000 public comments received on this project - would have reduced fuels on 1,600 acres of national forest land, pumped $1 million into the local economy and provided 45 local jobs."

Supervisor Bull rejected the community plan, and his decision cannot be appealed on an administrative level.

To justify his rejection, Bull said, the community proposal does "little to address fire behavior in the wildland urban interface which is a primary purpose of this project."

The community proposal "does not manage and regenerate stands infested by the Douglas-fir bark beetles and reduce susceptibility in stands at risk of infestation," Bull said.

Darby area resident Larry Campbell with Friends of the Bitterroot said, "It's unfortunate that the Supervisor Dave Bull is holding legitimate, effective community wildfire protection work in the East Fork area hostage to industrial-scale logging in the backcountry, which would only exacerbate fire problems."

"The community protection work could have been underway by now had it not been packaged with excessive logging on land that is already over legal limits for environmental damage," Campbell said.

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A large Douglas fir on the Bitterroot National Forest has been temporarily spared as logging of old growth is suspended under the Healthy Forest Restoration Act project. (Photo courtesy Native Forest Network)
The plan approved by Bull drops all treatments in old growth habitat but the "fuel reduction and restoration treatments" will result in approximately 11 million board feet of commercial timber.

The Forest is currently working on putting together "stewardship" contracts and Bull anticipates that work will begin on the ground this summer. This work includes:

Bull's approved plan postpones any decision on 23 units until additional information regarding soils conditions can be obtained. Eighty percent of the units postponed are in the wildland urban interface; and 59 percent would have included commercial treatments.

The groups claim that Bull still has every intention of going forward with the entire East Fork logging project, rather than the scaled back version. The conservation groups point out that last fall the Forest Service spent almost $210,000 marking logging units five months before an official decision.

The groups allege that Supervisor Bull attempted to block public knowledge of excessive soil damage in the project area by "altering the best-available scientific data and by purging project file documents related to soils" in an attempt to whitewash the Forest Service's proposal.

The conservation groups say that legitimate public process in this case is important because it will set the precedent for all future collaborations between the public and the Forest Service.

This is the first Healthy Forest Restoration Act (HFRA) timber sale in Montana. The public collaboration legally required by HFRA is a new approach to public involvement in public land management.

It is widely believed that the "collaborative process" that accompanied the East Fork timber sale has been abysmal, according to the conservation groups.

The distrust has reached the point that Senator Max Baucus of Montana wrote a letter to Supervisor Bull about one incident asking Bull to "outline how you believe your actions may impact your ability to build consensus and trust in the future with regards to similar projects, and how any negative impact may be remedied."

To view the Middle East Fork Hazardous Fuels Reduction Record of Decision, click here.

To see the plaintiff groups' complaint and preliminary injunction brief click here.