Secret clearcut on Beaverhead-Deerlodge NF discovered, conservation groups sue

[The following is a press release from the Alliance for the Wild Rockies and Native Ecosystems Council.  No word yet if the Beaverhead Partnership ‘collaborators’ (ie Montana Wilderness Association, Montana Trout Unlimited, National Wildlife Federation and some timber mill owners) knew about this alleged secret clearcut logging that apparently was conducted without any public involvement or legally-required environmental analysis. – mk]

The Alliance for the Wild Rockies and Native Ecosystems Council filed a lawsuit against Leann Marten, the Regional Forester of the Forest Service in Federal District Court in Missoula, after discovering a secret logging project, named Moosehorn Ditch Timber Sale, that logged an unknown number of acres of the Beaverhead-Deerlodge National Forest near Wisdom, MT, without any public involvement or legally-required environmental analysis.

“When I happened upon this, I couldn’t believe my eyes,” Dr. Sara Jane Johnson, Director of Native Ecosystems Council explained.  “I was visiting the area to monitor some aspen livestock fencing projects when I came across the massive clearcut. The area looked like it had been hit by a nuclear bomb.”


Dr. Johnson has a Ph.D. in wildlife biology from Montana State University and was a wildlife biologist for the Forest Service for 14 years.  “Lynx are listed as ‘protected’ under the Endangered Species Act and the Forest Service has documented at least seven lynx sightings within 15 miles of this clearcut.  Even the agency’s own studies show that logging destroys habitat for lynx,” Johnson continued. “Yet, despite clear legal requirements to consider the effects of logging projects on National Forest lands, the Forest Service arbitrarily decided to ignore the requirements of our nation’s environmental laws.  The only thing they did was give this secret clearcut a name, Moosehorn Ditch Timber Sale.”

“This logging is particularly egregious because of the numerous other sensitive species that have been sighted within a 15-mile radius of the timber sale,” Johnson explained. “Goshawks and a nest, wolverines, sage grouse and a lek, Northern Rockies fishers, gray wolves, black-backed woodpeckers, pileated woodpeckers, northern bog lemmings, Brewer’s sparrows, and great gray owls have all been documented in the area.”

“The shocking thing is to see what the Forest Service will do if they think no one is watching,” Johnson concluded. “It was just pure luck that we found this illegal timber sale.”

Apparently the Forest Service got so tired of losing court cases on their timber sales that they now are pretending that our nation’s laws don’t apply to them,” added Mike Garrity, Executive Director of the Alliance for the Wild Rockies.  “When we asked the Forest Service for a copy of the legally-required environmental analysis for this secret timber sale and documentation of how the public was involved, the agency responded that there was neither.”

“Fortunately for the American public, the National Environmental Policy Act, the National Forest Management Act and the Endangered Species Act are still on the books,” Garrity continued. “We are a democracy and only Congress can change laws, not federal agencies.”

“Congress passed these laws because the Forest Service was destroying our public lands by putting clearcutting ahead of preserving habitat for biodiversity, preservation of species, hunting, fishing and the clean, vital watersheds national forests provide,” Garrity concluded. “Bureaucrats can’t just pretend laws don’t exist when they get in the way of clearcutting the National Forests that belong to all Americans.  In our nation everybody has to follow the law and that certainly includes the taxpayer-funded Forest Service.”

Copy of the complaint is here.

23 thoughts on “Secret clearcut on Beaverhead-Deerlodge NF discovered, conservation groups sue”

    • I too am looking forward to the other side. Fifteen miles is sufficient to the extreme, to protect the “species of concern” noted in the biologists condemnation of the project. And please spare me the lecture on laws, our public lands are choked with resource management laws.

      • I know you want to be spared a lecture on laws, but in this case the lawsuit alleges that the U.S. Forest Service didn’t follow the law. Also, I think you are misunderstanding the 15 miles brought up by the former USFS biologist. It’s not a 15 mile buffer, as you seem to be thinking. I believe the 15 miles was brought up to point out that “the Forest Service has documented at least seven lynx sightings within 15 miles of this clearcut”…and lynx have feet and sometimes walk places. The fact that the USFS has documented at least 7 lynx sightings within 15 miles of the clearcut means there’s a very strong chance that lynx are in the immediate area.

  1. The Forest Service “administrative record” tells their side of the story, and that is described in the complaint (link was provided). With regard to the NEPA process, here was the information requested:

    “2. All NEPA analysis and decisions and public notice and participation documents for the Moosehorn Ditch Salvage Timber Sale.”

    Here was the response:
    “Staffs on the Beaverhead-Deerlodge National Forest searched their files and found no records responsive to Item 2 of your request. Work done is considered routine maintenance consisting of removal of hazard trees along a private linear right-of-way, 36 CPR 251.50(e)(3). ”

    The timber sale contract was apparently for 845 acres.

    If there is more to the NEPA story, that would mean the Forest Service violated FOIA with this response. I agree this is a little hard to believe, but of course what can a court do about it? Besides telling the Forest Service to hand over more money to the attorneys. The more interesting question would be what the Forest Service is going to do about it. Looking forward to the rest of that story.

    • Thanks for sharing your thoughts and some important context Jon, especially from your expert vantage point. I did track down the complaint, linked to it in the post (twice) and am trying to track down some images. Of course, if anyone else has information about this, please feel free to post it here.

    • Secret? A quick Googling turned up this USFS press release from 2014:

      Logging Begins Near Wisdom Montana
      Release Date: Mar 18, 2014 Wise River, MT
      Contact(s): Leona Rodreick

      The Wisdom Ranger District is advising travelers in the Gibbonsville Road area southwest of Wisdom that logging of the “Moosehorn Ditch Salvage Timber Sale” project will begin March 24. Logging work will occur along Forest Service roads #624 (Gibbonsville Road) and #7367 (Buckskin Park Road). Travelers to this area are advised to drive cautiously and to expect short delays along both roads due to truck traffic and machinery through May 2014.
      For additional information contact the Wisdom Ranger District in Wisdom at (406) 689-3243.

  2. I am confident there is a LOT more to this story, because “secrets” obscured by agency narratives have been the bases of countless agency whistleblowers’ concerns. The USDA in particular, routinely and systematically imposes harassment and intimidation of their whistleblowers. This should come as no surprise because the Obama administration has prosecuted more whistleblowers than all other presidents combined.

    The former USFS Chief (Abigail Kimbell) was rewarded the highest position after personally purging dozens of agency staffers with a conscience who became whistleblowers. Agency professionals have been risking their careers and financial security for decades because the agency’s culture routinely operates in “secret.”

    Agency narratives obscuring secrets get routinely dignified as fact by stenographic news reporting. Such secrets reveal a culture steeped in open disregard of environmental laws.

    Given there exists no personal nor professional standard of accountability to abide by environmental laws within the agency, and perverse incentives to reward line officers to flaunt the laws, why shouldn’t we expect such secrets and outcomes?

  3. Yeah, I sort of figured there was more to this story. Sounds like there is a right-of-way or private easement along this irrigation canal. The ROW holder removed vegetation along the canal. Presuming there is documentation of this easement, the vegetation removal is completely appropriate.

    This type of work is hardly unheard of. Areas along transmission lines are routinely cleared of vegetation that may grown into the line.

    Are there any pictures of this “clearcut”? Once again, I’m simply amazed at how some folks spin these stories. Actually, this is way beyond spin. It is dishonesty.

    Time to move along folks, nothing to see here ……this sounds like a loser of a lawsuit.

  4. It would seem the FS proceeded under a “categorical exclusion” to maintain the ditch. 845 acres seems like quite a lot of clearcutting to CE from NEPA documentation.
    I assume the ditch ROW is permitted (not owned) and that the permit holder conducted and paid for the work. The FS, in responding to a mtce request, would be required to authorize a reasonable width of clearing, not necessarily the entire width of the linear ROW. What happened to logs after harvest and removal? Government property I believe.

  5. Here’s the likely CE category for timber harvest:

    “(12) Harvest of live trees not to exceed 70 acres, requiring no more than ½ mile of temporary road construction. Do not use this category for even-aged regeneration harvest or vegetation type conversion. The proposed action may include incidental removal of trees for landings, skid trails, and road clearing. Examples include but are not limited to:

    (i) Removal of individual trees for sawlogs, specialty products, or fuelwood, and
    (ii) Commercial thinning of overstocked stands to achieve the desired stocking level to increase health and vigor.”

    For salvage and sanitation harvest, the limit is 250 acres. In any of these cases, a project file and a decision memo are required.

    “The responsible official shall notify interested or affected parties of the availability of the decision memo as soon as practical after signing.” (36 CFR 220.6(f))

    • Hi Jon,

      Thanks for this information. However, isn’t the USFS required to give public notice and opportunity for public participation, even with CE’s? What you posted earlier from the FOIA of the Administrative Record seemed to indicate the USFS failed to give public notice and opportunity for public participation, right?

  6. I haven’t had a lot of experience with project CEs, so I’d rather punt to someone with more. From what I can tell by looking at the the Forest Service NEPA and appeals/objection guidance, scoping is required for all projects, and scoping determines who needs to be notified. General public notice and comment does not appear to be a universal requirement for CEs. But there should always be an administrative record of the scoping process, which should provide the rationale for who was notified. That should have been provided in response to a FOIA request for NEPA documents.

    • Bob, I’m happy to provide updates and on-going coverage of this, like I’ve done on this blog for a long time. Thank you!

      P.S. What if the judge decides that ‘this silly lawsuit’ actually has merit?

      • Of course he did,he didn’t want sued or worse yet forced to resign. Amazing the power a few have over public land & others lives.

  7. Looks like a nuke give me a break think you kinda exaggerated. Try to walk through the forest or better yet repair fence bordering forest service properties now that looks like it has been bombed! If Joe public maintained their property like you are forcing the FS to do, city & county officials would be all over it, in fact there are ordinances against such behavior. Get a life oh that’s right you have made you life ruining others livelihoods.


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