Thanks to Sharon for her most-recent post (below) on the Colt Summit timber sale project on the Lolo National Forest. Here is a link to the AP article, which takes a more balanced look at the project, the lawsuit and the “friend of the court” briefs filed this week.
As the AP article indicates, my organization, the WildWest Institute, filed a brief in support of the plaintiffs (Alliance for the Wild Rockies, Friends of the Wild Swan, Montana Ecosystem Defense Council and Native Ecosystems Council, all represented by the Western Environmental Law Center).
Our brief questions some of the claims made by the collaborators regarding the relationship of this Colt Summit logging project to the Southwestern Crown of the Continent (SWCC) ‘collaborative’ group. We also question key aspects of the very nature of the SWCC ‘collaborative’ since the Forest Service and The Wilderness Society currently make up 43% of the voting block of the “collaborative.”
Yes, that’s right, unlike any other national forest ‘collaborative’ group that we know about in the country, the SWCC ‘collaborative’ allows Forest Service officials to be voting members. Currently 7 of the 28 voting members of the SWCC ‘collaborative’ are Forest Service employees.
Also, the co-chair of the entire SWCC ‘collaborative’ for the past two years has been the Forest Service Supervisor of the Lolo National Forest. Again, to our knowledge, this is something that isn’t done in any other national forest ‘collaborative’ around the country. Ironically, a few weeks ago, the SWCC Charter was amended to remove the Forest Service from being able to co-chair the ‘collaborative;’ however, the SWCC ‘collaborative’ still allows Forest Service employees to be members and to vote as part of the ‘collaborative.’
Another issue to keep in mind is how the SWCC’s scheduling of meetings favors ‘collaborators’ who get paid to be part of the SWCC. Normal citizens, or organizations with limited resources, often cannot afford to attend mid-day, mid-week meetings at various locations around western Montana. This is from our brief:
“SWCC’s scheduled meetings are always held on the third Tuesday of the month, currently from 1 pm to 4 pm. However, during the period [WildWest Institute] was a member of the SWCC, the meetings ran from 9 am to 4pm. Additionally, according the SWCC website, [SWCC's] Prioritization Committee meets from 10 am to 2pm on various weekdays at the Seeley Lake Ranger District, north of Seeley Lake and [SWCC's] Monitoring Committee meets from 1pm to 4pm on various weekdays, also at the Seeley Lake Ranger District office.
The fact that these meetings are held during the middle of the day, on a weekday makes it difficult for members and the general public to attend these meetings. Those individuals who have full time jobs not directly tied to national forest management must take time off work. Those who don’t live in the Seeley Swan area must also travel to and from the meetings, sometimes at great distance and cost. Forest Service employees, however, attend these meetings as a part of their position. Wilderness Society employees also attend these meetings as part of their full time jobs. Taking days off work and traveling is not an issue for them because their attendance is a part of their job.
Furthermore, inability to make the meetings is penalized. Missing three consecutive meetings can result in an individual being stripped of their voting rights. See Id at R-5:68131. Therefore, the meeting schedule itself seems to give unfair favoritism towards those members who attend these meetings as a part of their full time job.”
No matter what the “feel-good” rhetoric is, the fact of the matter is that the Forest Service didn’t do a great job on their NEPA analysis for this project and there are some real concerns with this project and the process used to put it together. For example, the Forest Service contracted the Finding Of No Signification Impact (FONSI) prior to completing the Environmental Assessment. Here’s a snip about that from our brief [emphasis added]:
“…in a discussion of the upcoming EA, IDT meeting notes, dated April 27, 2010, state “The forest [service] has designed the project to have no significant issues so that a finding of no significant impact (FONSI) can be written after the environmental analysis (EA).” Colt Summit Restoration and Fuel Reduction EA, IDT Meeting Notes, I-8:926. Document I-9 of the administrative record contains the above quotation, then furthers that idea by stating, “EA should already have reached conclusions on significance. Write from that point and perspective, providing support and evidence for no significance.” I-9:939. The following three pages basically provide a mini-seminar on how to persuasively say that the actions of the Forest Service have so significant impact on the environment. See I-9:940-942.”
Here are some other issues to ponder. While the ‘collaborators’ (lead by The Wilderness Society) sent out a media advisory worthy of a blockbuster Hollywood movie trailer (using words such as “targeted” “attacked” “bury it forever” “blowback” and “Ideological rift”), the simple fact of the matter is that the Lolo National Forest hasn’t faced a timber sale lawsuit in over 5 years and there have been 99 active timber sales on the Lolo National Forest between 2005 and 2010.
The ‘collaborators’ are claiming that the plaintiffs didn’t participate in the up-front planning for this project, which is a lie and completely untrue. In fact, the actual public record for this timber sale actually reflects a higher level of involvement from the plaintiffs (Alliance for Wild Rockies/Friends of Wild Swan) than from some of the ‘collaborators.’ Indeed, plaintiffs attended all meetings, all field trips and submitted extensive, detailed and substantive comments during the entire NEPA process.
Finally, from the plaintiffs briefs, here are some details about the Colt Summit Timber Sale:
• 2,038 acre logging project in lynx critical habitat and MS1 habitat for grizzlies
• logging will occur in old growth and mature forest stands;
• logging will remove the dense horizontal cover in forest stands that is so important for lynx foraging and denning
• “vista” cuts to open views of the swan mountains for motorized users are part of the project
• technically, project is in WUI (as per the Seeley fire plan) but it’s 10+ miles from the nearest community
• project is in the important Summit Divide wildlife corridor – the best place for lynx and griz to cross H83 as they travel between the Bob Marshall Wilderness and Mission Mountain Wilderness
• logging is proposed in a number of wetland areas
• Forest Service shrunk the INFISH buffers (designed to protect native trout species, including bull trout) to accommodate project.
UPDATE Feb 29, 4:15 pm: Thanks to Larry H for finding the google map link of the Colt Summit project area (see comments section). I just added a photo to this post, which is a view of the Colt Summit project area (roughly upper center by the 83 and bend in road), which also includes an expanded view about 8 miles in any direction from the project area. As anyone can see, the majority of the area around Colt Summit has been very heavily logged and roaded.