Two Montana-based groups filed suit in a Missoula federal court this week for a preliminary injunction and to permanently halt a proposed logging project in the Crazy Mountains.
The Native Ecosystems Council and Alliance for the Wild Rockies filed the lawsuit on April 27 seeking judicial review based on concerns about removal of hiding cover for elk, effects on pine marten and loss of habitat for Canada lynx, among other issues.
The proposed Smith Shields Project would log about 1,600 acres across a 19,000-acre project area to reduce the threat of wildlife to nearby homes and recreational residences by removing dead and dying trees, according to Marna Daley, spokeswoman for the Custer Gallatin National Forest.
Environmental analysis for the project was streamlined under a portion of the 2014 Farm Bill that modified the Healthy Forest Restoration Act to allow states to designate areas in need of a more rapid response to disease, insect or wildland fire threats.
Custer Gallatin National Forest supervisor Mary Erickson approved the project earlier this year. Work was expected to start by this fall or next year.
The lawsuit in part questions the use of the Farm Bill for speeding the review of logging in certain areas, saying it was “incumbent upon (Forest Service Chief Tom Tidwell) … to designate eligible areas in such a manner as to avoid cumulative effects on the human environment.”
Because the Farm Bill excludes environmental review, the groups argue Tidwell’s “designations could potentially have cumulatively significant impacts on the human environment.”
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Daley called the authority from the Farm Bill a “really important tool to treat vegetation in the wildland urban interface areas where we do have insect and disease concerns.”
The lawsuit asks the court to declare the agencies violated or are violating the law; that Tidwell’s designation of treatment areas in Montana be cancelled; that the Smith Shields Project be halted permanently; and that the court award them attorney fees and court costs.
So far the measure enacted in 2014 to speed forest logging has resulted in the Forest Service treating about 26,000 acres a year, according to testimony given by Jim Neiman, president of the Federal Forest Resource Coalition and a Wyoming sawmill owner, to the House Committee on Agriculture in March. At that rate, to meet the legislation’s proposal to treat 56 million acres will take another 440 years, Neiman argued.
Consequently, the forest products group pushed the committee to modify the next Farm Bill to ensure more land can be logged.
Tidwell testified before the same House committee in 2015 saying the Forest Service is committed to “increasing the pace and scale of restoration” and has been able to improve the amount of timber harvest for sawmills by 18 percent since 2008. The largest obstacle to increasing that work even more is the way the agency is required to transfer money from non-fire accounts to pay for firefighting, he told the lawmakers.
The Alliance for the Wild Rockies sued to halt the Custer Gallatin National Forest’s first project under the Farm Bill, along West Yellowstone’s biathlon trail, but lost.