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HELENA — Two conservation groups are suing the Helena National Forest to try to stop a vegetation management project near Townsend.

The Cabin Gulch Vegetation Treatment and Project involves logging and burning trees on 2,891 acres over a 15,600-acre project area near Deep Creek. It was first proposed in 2005 and went through about three iterations before the final decision was signed in March 2012 by Kevin Riordan, the forest supervisor.

The initial treatment area proposed in a 2006 draft Environmental Impact Statement involved 3,890 acres. But after the 2008 Bear Gulch fire burned part of the project area, and a goshawk nest was discovered — which by law, reduced the project area by 600 acres — the final logging, thinning and burning area was reduced to 2,891 acres. The work also proposed some helicopter logging.

Mike Garrity, executive director of the Alliance for the Wild Rockies, argues in court documents that a new study from Colorado concludes that except near homes, logging has little effect on wildfires. He added that the project also logs important big game habitat, and that elk cover already is below the forest plan standards.

He said that along with the logging, the eight-year-long timber sale authorizes 417 acres of clearcuts, 602 acres of prescribed burning, and 6.5 miles of new road construction.

“This timber sale would log important big game habitat, miles from any home and eliminate 2,500 acres of elk hiding cover in a landscape that has already been heavily logged and burned after the Maudlow-Toston and Cave Gulch fires,” Garrity said. “The amount of effective elk hiding cover and habitat is already so low that the Forest Service filed a special exemption for the timber sale to avoid complying with the scientific and legal protections for elk habitat and hiding cover that these large and iconic symbols of Montana require.

“A logical person would conclude that since this timber sale is going to make a bad situation worse, it’s not worth pursuing, but instead it’s full speed ahead,”

To address the elk cover concern, Riordan had made site-specific amendments to the 1986 Helena National Forest Plan, exempting a portion of the Cabin Gulch project area from the standards for elk cover on summer range and the open road density/hiding cover ratio during the hunting season. To offset that, Riordan retained additional hiding cover within other security areas.

The project was designed to reduce tree density in the forest, which allows the remaining trees more water and sunlight. It’s also meant to lower the amount of “ladder fuels” and future fuel loads, which forest managers say allow wildfires to burn as slower-moving ground fires instead of fast-moving fires in the tops of trees.

Kathy Bushnell, spokeswoman for the Helena forest, said they can’t comment on ongoing legal matters.

“However, we do believe that Cabin Gulch Vegetation Management is a worthwhile and important project that will help improve the health of these ecosystems by using a variety of management activities,” she added.

They have an oral auction for the timber sale set for Sept. 25.

The alliance, which along with the Native Ecosystems Council filed the civil suit Friday in U.S. District Court, said the project violates the National Environmental Policy Act, the National Forest Management Act, the Endangered Species Act and the Administrative Procedure Act. They’re seeking an injunction to halt the project, as well as the costs incurred by bringing the lawsuit.

“We have been involved in every step of this process and made the agency aware of our concerns. It is unfortunate that we have to ask the court to intervene to protect habitat for big game as the law requires,” Garrity said. “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.”

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