GREAT FALLS - Two conservation groups filed a lawsuit against the U.S. Forest Service arguing the agency should have completed a more thorough environmental review of a plan to cut down trees killed by mountain pine beetles in the Little Belt Mountain
Lewis and Clark National Forest officials proposed removing such hazard trees near 58 cabins, five radio towers, 157 campgrounds and trails, and along 575 miles of roads in a total area of about 26 square miles.
"By mitigating hazard trees we're attempting to do our duty to maintain public safety while allowing the public to continue to access their national forest," spokesman Dave Cunningham said in a story published online Monday.
The lawsuit was filed Friday in U.S. District Court in Missoula by the Alliance for the Wild Rockies and the Native Ecosystems Council. It claims the forest service illegally used a "categorical exclusion" that requires less environmental review if the agency determines a project won't significantly harm the environment.
"Categorical exclusions were intended for purposes such as mowing the lawn at the ranger station or painting an outhouse, not logging over 17,000 acres," Mike Garrity, executive director of the alliance, said in a statement. "Herbicide spraying and logging will occur in several already degraded watersheds and along several streams that at considered 'impaired' due to sediment."
He said the proposed logging will dump more sediment into streams that are needed for westslope cutthroat trout to survive and as habitat for Western toads, both listed as sensitive species in the forest.
Sarah Johnson, director of the Native Ecosystems Council, said the pine beetle epidemic isn't forest-wide and many beetle-killed trees along the roads have been cut down for firewood.
"It's a mystery why the Forest Service wants to log 17,000 acres of so-called hazardous trees when there isn't a hazard," said Johnson, a former Gallatin National Forest biologist.
The lawsuit asks the court to prevent the Forest Service from implementing the project until it complies with the National Environmental Policy Act.
Garrity said his group supports logging to protect public safety. But he noted that the Forest Service did full environmental analyses on previous roadside logging projects.
"The public needs to be shown that there is a real safety hazard and not just an imagined excuse for more subsidized logging," Garrity said.