HELENA — A federal judge this week issued a preliminary injunction halting a 5,000-acre timber project near Lincoln.

U.S. District Judge Dana Christensen agreed with environmental watchdogs that the Stonewall Vegetation Project should be delayed while the court considers the merits of a pending lawsuit.

The Helena-Lewis and Clark National Forest approved Stonewall last August. The project area, located about four miles north and west of Lincoln in heavily beetle-killed forests, covers 24,000 acres within Lewis and Clark and Powell counties. The project came from recommendations of the collaborative Lincoln Restoration Committee and includes logging on more than 2,100 acres and prescribed burning of more than 2,700 acres.

The Forest Service’s goal was to increase resiliency to insects and wildfire by diversifying tree species and age classes while promoting aspen and white bark pine growth, according to planning documents.

In February Alliance for the Wild Rockies and Native Ecosystems Council filed suit contending that the project violated federal environmental laws. Among the complaints, the groups argued that road densities for grizzly bears and logging in habitat designated as critical for Canada lynx put the Forest Service in conflict with the Endangered Species Act and management of those threatened species.

In issuing the injunction, Christensen cites the well-known “Cottonwood” decision. In that case the Forest Service was ordered to re-initiate consultation with U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service after the latter reevaluated and greatly expanded designated critical lynx habitat.

Environmental advocates applauded Cottonwood, but it also drew significant condemnation, with critics believing it unfairly stifled the logging industry.

The consultation between the agencies is ongoing and Christensen found that any resulting changes “could have profound repercussions upon the species,” essentially ruling case law dictated that consultation needed completion before commencing with Stonewall.

The project included two timber sales, according to Lincoln District Ranger Michael Stansberry. The first and largest was awarded to RY Timber with logging allowed to begin June 1. The second and smaller sale geared towards small businesses had not been awarded, he said.

Reporter Tom Kuglin can be reached at 447-4076 @IR_TomKuglin