At odds over old forests: Treatment projects tied up in court and appeals: Great Falls Tribune

I did the best I could with Google Earth…if anyone has a photo of this project please send…

Thanks to Terry Seyden for this one on one of our favorite topics. Nice example of the FS telling its side of the story. It is well worth reading in its entirety because it touches pretty directly on much of the discussion we have on this blog. I’ll just focus my excerpts on the two groups of interest and lawsuit counts.

Note: in Sharon’s opinion, if folks are going to choose litigation as a way of making policy, then all the information should be just as transparent and readily available as for an agency rulemaking or EIS.

So in the People’s Database: for each Region, a table of current lawsuits, including the plaintiffs, the current status, the project, claims and links to all court documents (at no cost). E.g., the 18 filed in FY 12, in R-1 according to this article.

Here is the link, and below are some excerpts.

The two groups in particular are challenging the forest plans in court or in administrative appeals where they often cite violations of the National Environmental Policy Act and National Forest Management Act.

The inability of the two sides to see eye-to-eye often leads to delays in the work getting implemented, sometimes for years. One project in the Lewis and Clark forest that’s still on the books first was proposed in 1999.

Avey said the delays in the implementation of the vegetation treatments, while part of the process, carry costs — opportunity costs in that it requires forest specialists to respond to lawsuits rather than working on future projects; economic costs to communities that would benefit from timber sales; and public safety costs.

“If there’s an area of interface or community at risk and it’s hung up in court, part of the cost is they’re at elevated risk,” he said.

Michael Garrity, executive director of the Alliance for the Wild Rockies, said he doesn’t challenge any project unless he thinks environmental laws are not being followed.

“We’re trying to save habitat for native species,” he said.

Phil Sammon, a Forest Service spokesman for the agency’s Missoula-based Region 1, says the region sees a lot of lawsuits, maybe the most in the nation.

There are 30 active lawsuits in the region — 18 filed in fiscal year 2012 — involving agency decisions, including two cases in the Great Falls-based Lewis and Clark National Forest that don’t include appeals occurring at the administrative level. A third lawsuit in the local forest is being considered.

In September, the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals handed the Lewis and Clark forest a victory, upholding a previous ruling by U.S. District Judge Donald Molloy that a fuels-reduction project south of Stanford called Ettien Ridge would have no significant impact on wildlife.

The decision cleared the way for the Forest Service to implement the project — after six years, Avey said.

The Ettien Ridge project involves setting prescribed fires and using logging to thin stands on 1,600 acres to reduce the speed and intensity of a wildfire that could move through Sapphire Village, Avey said. The agency can’t stop fire, he said, but it can take steps to “take some of the punch out of that fire when it walks through there.”

Native Ecosystems Council brought the Ettien Ridge lawsuit.

Johnson, the group’s director, called the 9th circuit’s ruling on the Ettien Ridge project “a heart breaker.”

“These are beautiful old-growth trees,” she said.

Johnson says she’s on a “crusade” to keep goshawk from being listed as a threatened or endangered species. Currently, the state lists it as a species of concern. Removing old-growth trees, she says, reduces the number of red squirrels, a key food for the raptor.

In the Ettien Ridge decision, a three-judge panel in Seattle ruled the Forest Service completed the required “hard look” at the environmental impact of the burning and logging on elk hiding cover and goshawk populations as required by the National Environmental Policy Act.


The mission of the Alliance for the Wild Rockies is to save habitat for native species in the Northern Rockies.

Currently it’s involved with 10 lawsuits in Montana, Utah, eastern Washington and Montana, said Garrity, the executive director.

Garrity says lawsuits are filed when the Forest Service is not fulfilling its obligation to ensure viable populations of native species. Those species include lynx, wolves, wolverine, goshawk and elk.

“We’re not suing on everything,” Garrity said. “If we think they’re following the law, we don’t contest the timber sale.”

His main concern with the projects is the logging, not the prescribed fire. Garrity says studies have shown that logging can increase fire danger and he calls it corporate welfare because he says receipts from timber sales don’t cover the government’s costs in preparing them.

It’s interesting that Johnson says that she is on a crusade for goshawks, while Garrity says the FS is not “fulfilling its obligation” or “following the law.” But these folks are investing beaucoup of their own and taxpayers bucks to send a 1600 acre project (I found 641 acres of mechanical treatment in the decision notice here) to appeals court. I am pretty much with Derek on the idea that policy wonks such as ourselves and taxpayers should be able to find out how much this costs the US government.

I would disagree with Forest Supervisor Avey when he says

“You read letters to the editor from time to time, and you hear from people, ‘How come it takes so long for you guys to get a project out the door?’” said Avey, the Lewis and Clark forest supervisor. “I do hope people understand the laws and the climate we’re in. It is what it is. It’s neither bad nor good.”

I think 6 years for a 640 acre thinning project is, really, clearly on the “bad” and not the “good” side. Suppose the USG tab was $400K per year for 6 years, say 2.4 million. If good goshawk habitat is $5K per acre, we could buy 480 more acres of habitat, not near a WUI. If you put that with what the plaintiffs spent, you gotta wonder if this way of doing business is really good for birds or taxpayers.

3 thoughts on “At odds over old forests: Treatment projects tied up in court and appeals: Great Falls Tribune”

  1. Thanks to Sharon for posting a google earth image of the Little Belt Mountains and the general area of the proposed Ettien Ridge project. At the following link, you can see the same basic google image as the one Sharon posted, but it’s more zoomed in…that way the hundreds of clearcuts and logging roads really pop!

    As anyone can clearly see at the image below, nearly the entire Little Belt Mountain Range has been roaded, clearcut and mined. Is this tremendous fragmentation good for native wildlife? What about native fish? Perhaps this image helps drive home the context of these lawsuits more than anything else. Thanks.

  2. Sharon,

    We have talked about this several times before. I believe it is inappropriate to talk about these cases in terms of the acreage/cost of litigation when entire forests plans are being challenged.

  3. Hmm. I couldn’t tell from these stories exactly what the complaints were… could someone provide (or tell me where to find for free) the original complaints on this lawsuit?
    Also a copy of the 9th Circuit Appeals decision. Then maybe I could understand what the issue is with the forest plan. It was hard to tell that from the quotes in the story about the project.


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