AWR: The Rest of the Story on the Little Belts Lawsuit

The Little Belt Mountain Range on the Lewis and Clark National Forest in central Montana as seen from overhead on this Google image. As anyone can clearly see, nearly the entire mountain range has been heavily roaded, clearcut and mined. Ask yourself: is this tremendous fragmentation good for native wildlife or native fish?

The following opinion editorial is written by Mike Garrity, Alliance for Wild Rockies. It appeared in today’s Great Falls Tribune:

The Tribune’s article on Nov. 18 about the Lewis and Clark National Forest left out some important details and readers deserve to know why the Alliance for the Wild Rockies and Native Ecosystems Council went to court to protect the Little Belt Mountains from the proposed “Hazardous Trees Reduction Project.”

First, it is important to bring some perspective to the scope of the project. Logging will take place on a whopping 575 miles of roads. If you were to jump on I-15 and head south, you’d have to go all the way to Salt Lake City to cover that many miles. But remember, all those miles of road to be logged are not spread out through three states from Great Falls to Salt Lake — they’re located in just one Montana mountain range.

The project would change those small roads and two-tracks to look like landing strips since all the roadside trees would be cut down for hundreds of feet. As a result, any elk that cross roads won’t be quickly sneaking across two-tracks, they’ll be fully exposed in an open area as long as a football field. That the project includes this kind of logging in wilderness study areas, research natural areas, inventoried roadless areas, and old growth also deserves explanation by the Forest Service, not obfuscation.

Widespread herbicide spraying is also proposed in several watersheds and streams that are already rated impaired due to sedimentation. More logging will dump even more sediment into these degraded streams, which is antithetical to state efforts to preserve Westslope cutthroat trout and keep Montana’s state fish off the Endangered Species list. The bottom line, however, is that the Forest Service is required by law to produce an environmental analysis for public review and comment.

While Forest Supervisor Bill Avey claims the agency wants more early public involvement, his attempt to use a categorical exclusion does just the opposite – it excludes the public and is the primary reason for taking the agency to court. The Forest Service has prepared an environmental analysis for all similar projects in Montana. Had this proposal been allowed to go forward, it would have set a terrible precedent not just for Montana, but nationwide.

Categorical exclusions were intended for purposes such as mowing lawns at ranger stations or painting outhouses, not logging over 17,000 acres along 575 miles of roads. Had Avey followed the law, the public would certainly have raised questions about the proposal. For instance, environmental analysis would reveal that massive infestations of noxious weeds such as thistle, knapweed, and hounds tongue already exist along these roads. The Forest Service admits it can’t control them now, but didn’t want to admit that logging will only make the situation worse.

Or how about the fact that Canada lynx, wolverine, black-backed woodpecker, Northern goshawk, Western toad, and Northern three-toed woodpecker are all known to occur in the Little Belts and that their numbers will be further reduced by these massive clear cuts? Or maybe Avey didn’t want the public to know that the Forest Service’s own studies show that logging wild lands has little effect on wildfires and that they even might make fires burn hotter because logged forests are hotter, windier, and drier than unlogged forests. Or perhaps Avey didn’t want to explain why the Forest Service wants to log these so-called hazardous trees at a cost of over $2 million to taxpayers when there isn’t a hazard.

Firewood cutters have already done a good job removing beetle-killed trees next to the roads — and they did it without a subsidy from taxpayers. And finally, the public might want to ask why Avey waited until he was sued in federal court to agree to follow the law and write an environmental analysis on this timber sale.

We explained to Avey at an appeal resolution meeting that the Forest Service was illegally excluding the public from having input on this proposal, but unfortunately, he ignored us until we sued, and then he pulled the project. We firmly believe that in America the public should have a say in the management of our public lands. It is unfortunate that we had to go to court to get it.