MISSOULA — After a legal misstep, Lolo National Forest officials believe they’ve answered a federal judge’s request for lynx analysis on the disputed Colt-Summit Restoration and Fuels Reduction Project.
“The actual project has not changed,” Lolo environmental coordinator Chris Partyka said Monday. “When we went back to court with a lynx supplement, it was kind of a packaging issue. Based on the court order, what we needed was supplemental lynx analysis. So we rewrote a supplemental environmental analysis, and did additional work to answer and respond to public comments on lynx. It represents an increased amount of energy and time we put in explaining the cumulative effects to lynx and lynx habitat in the project.”
However, project opponents said Monday the new material still fails to solve the project’s legal problems. Alliance for the Wild Rockies director Michael Garrity said Lolo National Forest officials failed to consider recent court decisions.
“We just stopped two timber sales, both in the Gallatin National Forest, and the decisions came out a few days before they released the Colt-Summit EA,” Garrity said. “The judge ordered them to consult with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to do a programmatic consultation, not just a site-specific analysis. The exact issue applies here and they didn’t do it.”
In the Colt-Summit lawsuit, U.S. District Judge Donald Molloy ruled in favor of the U.S. Forest Service on all but one issue – there wasn’t proper review of how the logging and restoration work would affect lynx. He blocked the project until he received a supplemental environmental analysis, and chastised the Forest Service in March for sending him a “supplement to the environmental assessment.”
The case involves a new kind of forest project developed in collaboration with timber companies, environmentalists and local residents along the divide between the Clearwater and Swan river drainages. It would deliver a mix of logging and prescribed burning on 2,038 acres, turn four miles of road into trail, rebuild another 5.1 miles of existing road, decommission 25.2 miles of old road, and spray for noxious weeds.
The Alliance for the Wild Rockies, Friends of the Wild Swan, Native Ecosystems Council and Montana Ecosystems Defense Council collectively sued the Lolo National Forest over the project, arguing it threatened old-growth stands needed by grizzly bears and lynx.
Friends of the Wild Swan director Arlene Montgomery said the distinction between a supplement and a supplemental EA was important. The former might provide important information on how the project could affect lynx, which is considered a threatened species under the Endangered Species Act. But a supplemental EA would consider how changes that affect lynx might also affect other threatened species, such as grizzly bear and bull trout.
Garrity added that the more intensive consultation between the Forest Service and Fish and Wildlife Service was crucial because the latter agency has expanded its guidelines for protecting lynx since the Forest Service developed its own lynx management direction. In particular, he said the Colt-Summit project needs to be reviewed relative to the decades of other logging activity that’s changed the landscape in the Seeley-Swan valleys.
“They clearly have to follow this order,” Garrity said of the Forest Service. “You have to look at the cumulative impacts. Lynx numbers are declining. They’re trying to throw a bunch of paper at the problem. That’s not recovery. That’s just managing for extinction.”
Partyka said the new supplemental environmental assessment would be out for public comment until Aug. 7. After that, the Forest Service will review the comments, respond to any new issues, and then decide whether to move forward with the project, modify it or withdraw it. If the decision is to go forward, the agency would have to ask Molloy to withdraw the injunction.
If it meets legal approval, work could begin in 2014.