Environmental groups have filed suit to halt two logging projects proposed by the Forest Service to lessen wildfire danger south of Bozeman and along the East Boulder River.
The Alliance for the Wild Rockies and Native Ecosystems Council filed suit Tuesday in U.S. District Court in Missoula, contending the projects would be detrimental to threatened and endangered species, such as grizzly bears and lynx, that occupy the landscapes.
"The Forest Service is determined to force bulldozers, logging trucks and helicopters into the Sourdough Creek, Hyalite Creek and South Cottonwood Creek drainages," Steve Kelly, an Alliance board member, said in a statement. "We are equally determined to protect the outstanding wildlife habitat, water quality and recreational opportunities these federal public lands provide."
The Gallatin National Forest staff has worked to address concerns about the projects, said Marna Daley, public affairs officer.
That's one reason the projects have been on the drawing board so long, she added.
The Bozeman Municipal Watershed plan was launched in 2007. The East Boulder project dates back to 2009. Both were successfully challenged by the groups, prompting the Forest Service to rework its plans to address concerns.
"We worked really hard to be as responsive as we could," Daley said. "Organizationally, it is deeply disappointing to the Gallatin National Forest that we did work as hard as we could and we still can't find a resolution outside of the courtroom."
The environmental group members said they see the court as their last resort.
"This is the fifth time the Forest Service has tried to push the Bozeman watershed timber sale, which has been successfully challenged four times since the '90s, including our successful administrative appeal last April," said Michael Garrity, executive director of the Alliance for the Wild Rockies. "Simply stated, the agency's proposal breaks a number of laws and this time around is no different."
Daley said the forest seems caught up in an unfortunate "litigation cycle" with the two environmental groups.
The Bozeman Municipal Watershed timber sale is a 10-year logging project that authorizes more than 3,000 acres of logging, more than 1,500 acres of prescribed burning and the building of seven miles of road in the 50,000-acre project area. The Forest Service has explained the plan as a way to prevent a catastrophic wildlife loss in the area that holds two creeks that supply much of Bozeman's drinking water.
Kelly said the project would increase sediment loads in the already degraded streams that are home to native westslope cutthroat trout, a species of special concern in Montana.
The East Boulder timber sale would allow 650 acres of logging and two miles of new road construction. The work was proposed to make the East Boulder River Road safer as an evacuation route should a wildfire occur. The road serves 20 private residences as well as Stillwater Mining Co.'s East Boulder Mine and its workers.
Garrity said the East Boulder project harms big game winter range that is important to mule deer, elk and moose. Removing trees to the extent the Forest Service plans to would deplete the forest canopy, which blocks wind and snow on the winter range, he said.
The groups tried to work with the Forest Service, Garrity said. Taking their concerns to court was the only option left once those administrative appeals were exhausted, he added.
"It's not something we prefer to do, but in the end, judicial review is part and parcel of our system of government and we are using it to challenge the government's actions exactly as it was intended," he said.