The U.S. Forest Service will proceed with an Elliston-area timber and fuels reduction project after a U.S. District Court judge dismissed a lawsuit filed by two environmental groups – a decision the groups say they will appeal.
The 5,700-acre Telegraph Vegetation Project includes logging and prescribed burning about 15 miles southwest of Helena and 5 miles south of Elliston. Approved last year, the project seeks greater resiliency to wildfire, insects and drought through diversifying age classes of trees along with producing 25 million board feet of commercial timber.
Last spring, Three Forks-based Native Ecosystems Council and Helena-based Alliance for the Wild Rockies filed a lawsuit in federal court challenging the project on multiple fronts.
The groups contended that the project violated environmental laws while degrading fish and wildlife habitat including impacts to elk, Canada lynx and grizzly bears. They also argued that the Forest Service failed to adequately consider the “cumulative impacts” of the adjacent Ten Mile-South Helena Project, which also proposes logging, thinning and prescribed burning west of Helena.
On Tuesday, Judge Dana Christensen dismissed the lawsuit in favor of the Forest Service on several procedural grounds as well as ruling on the merits of one of the claims. The judge agreed with U.S. Magistrate Judge Jeremiah C. Lynch, who had reviewed the findings and recommended the court dismiss the case.
“We’re very pleased and excited to move on the project,” said Helena-Lewis and Clark Forest Supervisor Bill Avey. “It’s good for the ground, it’s good for the fuels reduction effort and good for the local economy.”
The Forest Service paused the project following the lawsuit. Two timber sale contracts were halted as a result and the agency now is working to award a third contract.
Christensen found the court lacked jurisdiction over the groups’ claims that Telegraph and Ten-Mile South Helena should have been analyzed as a single project to consider cumulative impacts. He found that those claims had not been adequately raised during the administrative review and objection process.
The alliance and council contended they had raised the cumulative claims in “general terms,” but the judge founded the claims only targeted the quality of environmental analysis on Telegraph.
Christensen also dismissed some specific claims by the groups related to road density and a portion of the burning, finding they were not adequately addressed in their opening brief.
Christensen disagreed with Lynch in finding that the alliance and council properly raised an objection to the Forest Service’s use of local wildfire risk mapping in deciding where to exempt certain logging and burning operations. The groups claimed that the agency incorrectly relied on local wildland-urban interface maps rather than restrictions imposed to protect threatened Canada lynx.
Christensen ruled that the claims do not “hold water” and that the Forest Service had acted within the law.
Mike Garrity, executive director for the alliance replied, “We disagree with the decision and will appeal to the Ninth Circuit,” when asked for comment.