MISSOULA — The U.S. Forest Service says it has successfully answered a federal judge's legal questions involving a 2,038-acre proposed logging project in the Lolo National Forest about 10 miles north of Seeley Lake.
Lolo National Forest Supervisor Debbie Austin last week wrote there was no need for additional information about the Colt Summit Project proposed in 2011. The decision opens the way for work to start this summer.
"I have found no reason to further supplement, correct or revise my March 25, 2011, decision," she said.
Four conservation groups — Friends of the Wild Swan, the Alliance for the Wild Rockies, Montana Ecosystems Defense Council and Native Ecosystems Council — sued in September 2011 to stop the project, saying it would harm lynx, bear and trout habitat.
U.S. District Judge Donald Molloy last June knocked down most of the plaintiffs' claims and said the Forest Service properly studied the project's effects on lynx and grizzly bears. The exception was the claim that the Colt Summit Project analysis violated the National Environmental Policy Act by not studying the cumulative effects of the project on lynx, a threatened species. The judge sent that portion of the proposal back to the Forest Service for further consideration.
Austin in August submitted a supplemental environmental assessment for public review and comments to address those concerns about lynx, which she said clears the way for the project to continue.
Western Environmental Law Center attorney Matt Bishop, who represented the environmental groups, said he was disappointed Austin didn't issue a new environmental assessment but chose to reaffirm the old one. He said he needed time to review Austin's decision before the conservation groups could consider their next move.
The project has received federal funding as part of the 1.5-million-acre Southwestern Crown of the Continent restoration project. The plan includes a combination of logging and burning timber, decommissioning roads or converting them to trails and treating noxious weeds. Its planning involved people and groups that have a stake in the forest, including governments, conservationists, industry and communities.
The project has been unusual in that it has pitted conservation groups against each other. The Wilderness Society and the Montana Wilderness Association are backing the Forest Service, saying the Colt Summit Project is part of an ideological shift toward collaborative management meant to end a rancorous stalemate that has prevented wilderness or restoration projects from moving forward.