The following opinion editorial is written by Mike Garrity, Alliance for Wild Rockies. It appeared in today’s Great Falls Tribune:
The Tribune’s article on Nov. 18 about the Lewis and Clark National Forest left out some important details and readers deserve to know why the Alliance for the Wild Rockies and Native Ecosystems Council went to court to protect the Little Belt Mountains from the proposed “Hazardous Trees Reduction Project.”
First, it is important to bring some perspective to the scope of the project. Logging will take place on a whopping 575 miles of roads. If you were to jump on I-15 and head south, you’d have to go all the way to Salt Lake City to cover that many miles. But remember, all those miles of road to be logged are not spread out through three states from Great Falls to Salt Lake — they’re located in just one Montana mountain range.
The project would change those small roads and two-tracks to look like landing strips since all the roadside trees would be cut down for hundreds of feet. As a result, any elk that cross roads won’t be quickly sneaking across two-tracks, they’ll be fully exposed in an open area as long as a football field. That the project includes this kind of logging in wilderness study areas, research natural areas, inventoried roadless areas, and old growth also deserves explanation by the Forest Service, not obfuscation.
Widespread herbicide spraying is also proposed in several watersheds and streams that are already rated impaired due to sedimentation. More logging will dump even more sediment into these degraded streams, which is antithetical to state efforts to preserve Westslope cutthroat trout and keep Montana’s state fish off the Endangered Species list. The bottom line, however, is that the Forest Service is required by law to produce an environmental analysis for public review and comment.
While Forest Supervisor Bill Avey claims the agency wants more early public involvement, his attempt to use a categorical exclusion does just the opposite – it excludes the public and is the primary reason for taking the agency to court. The Forest Service has prepared an environmental analysis for all similar projects in Montana. Had this proposal been allowed to go forward, it would have set a terrible precedent not just for Montana, but nationwide.
Categorical exclusions were intended for purposes such as mowing lawns at ranger stations or painting outhouses, not logging over 17,000 acres along 575 miles of roads. Had Avey followed the law, the public would certainly have raised questions about the proposal. For instance, environmental analysis would reveal that massive infestations of noxious weeds such as thistle, knapweed, and hounds tongue already exist along these roads. The Forest Service admits it can’t control them now, but didn’t want to admit that logging will only make the situation worse.
Or how about the fact that Canada lynx, wolverine, black-backed woodpecker, Northern goshawk, Western toad, and Northern three-toed woodpecker are all known to occur in the Little Belts and that their numbers will be further reduced by these massive clear cuts? Or maybe Avey didn’t want the public to know that the Forest Service’s own studies show that logging wild lands has little effect on wildfires and that they even might make fires burn hotter because logged forests are hotter, windier, and drier than unlogged forests. Or perhaps Avey didn’t want to explain why the Forest Service wants to log these so-called hazardous trees at a cost of over $2 million to taxpayers when there isn’t a hazard.
Firewood cutters have already done a good job removing beetle-killed trees next to the roads — and they did it without a subsidy from taxpayers. And finally, the public might want to ask why Avey waited until he was sued in federal court to agree to follow the law and write an environmental analysis on this timber sale.
We explained to Avey at an appeal resolution meeting that the Forest Service was illegally excluding the public from having input on this proposal, but unfortunately, he ignored us until we sued, and then he pulled the project. We firmly believe that in America the public should have a say in the management of our public lands. It is unfortunate that we had to go to court to get it.
Two months ago we had a discussion about the appropriate, or inappropriate, use of a Categorical Exclusion (CE) relating to the Lewis and Clark National Forest’s “Little Belt Mountain Hazard Tree Removal Project” in central Montana. This followed other debates on this blog about the use of CE’s (here and here).
According to the Alliance for Wild Rockies, the use of a CE for this project – which they contend would result in logging over 17,000 acres of national forest lands, including logging in Inventoried Roadless Areas, Wilderness Study Areas, Research Natural Areas, and old-growth forests – was inappropriate, so they sued.
On Thursday, Lewis and Clark National Forest Supervisor, William Avey, sent out this letter to interested parties, letting the public know he was withdrawing the CE Decision Memo and intending “to prepare an environmental assessment to provide evidence and analysis for determining whether to prepare an environmental impact statement or a finding of no significant impact for the Little Belt Mountains Hazard Tree Removal Project.”
We’re discussed the appropriate, or inappropriate, use of Categorical Exclusions (CE’s) by the Forest Service in the past (here and here). What about a CE for a 17,000 acre logging project that includes logging within Inventoried Roadless Areas, Wilderness Study Areas, Research Natural Areas, and old growth forests? Is a CE really an appropriate level of analysis and public input for such a project? Clearly some folks think not. The following is a press release from the Alliance for Wild Rockies and the Native Ecosystems Council. A copy of the complaint is here.
The Alliance for the Wild Rockies and Native Ecosystems Council filed a lawsuit on Friday in Federal District Court against the Forest Service to stop the Little Belt Mountain Hazard Tree Removal Project in the Lewis and Clark National Forest. The Forest Service plans to log 17,000 acres on National Forest Lands, including logging in Inventoried Roadless Areas, Wilderness Study Areas, Research Natural Areas, and old growth forests. The Forest Service authorized these activities under a Categorical Exclusion from the environmental analyses required by the National Environmental Policy Act.
“Up until now the Forest Service has done a full environmental analysis on large roadside logging projects,” said Mike Garrity, Executive Director of the Alliance for the Wild Rockies. “We didn’t oppose the agency on those projects, but in this case the agency is excluding itself from the requirement to keep the public informed of the environmental effects and to provide public input on the proposal. Categorical Exclusions were intended for purposes such as mowing the lawn at the Ranger Station or painting outhouses, not logging over 17,000 acres.”
“Herbicide spraying and logging will occur in several already degraded watersheds and along several streams that are considered ‘impaired’ due to sediment,” Garrity explained. “These areas provide habitat for the westslope cutthroat trout and the Western toad, both are considered ‘sensitive species’ on the Forest and both will be impacted by logging – especially when you consider approximately 1,700 acres of logging and herbicide spraying will occur within 150 feet of streams. The result will be to dump more sediment into already degraded streams where these native fish are struggling to survive”.
“I have recently driven roads in the Little Belt Mountains and there is evidence of the mountain pine beetle epidemic, but it is in patches, not forest wide,” explained Sara Johnson, Director of Native Ecosystems Council and former Gallatin National Forest biologist. “Where the beetles have killed trees next to the road, firewood cutters have already done a good job cutting them down. 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. The only hazard will be to the native wildlife when 17,000 acres of important habitat is clearcut and to the taxpayers who have to pay for it.”
“There are already massive infestations of noxious weeds, such as thistle and houndstongue, along roads,” Johnson said. “They can’t control the weed problem now and logging will just make it worse.”
“The Canada lynx, listed as ‘threatened’ under the Endangered Species Act, has historical presence on the Forest including recent sightings in the project area. Lynx, wolverine, black-backed woodpecker, Northern goshawk, Western toad, and Northern three-toed woodpecker all are known to occur in the area and their numbers will be further reduced by these massive clearcuts,” concluded Johnson.
“We support logging to protect public safety,” Garrity said. “But the public needs to be kept informed to ensure that the Federal Government is following the law. The public needs to be shown that there is a real safety hazard and not just an imagined excuse for more subsidized logging.
“It is unfortunate that we have to ask the court to intervene to force the Federal Government to let the public be involved in the management of our National Forests, Garrity concluded. “But in the end, we firmly believe the public should have a say in the management of public lands…even if we have to go to court to get it.”