The city of Helena will file briefs in federal court in opposition to two lawsuits challenging the Forest Service’s Ten Mile-South Helena Project.
The Helena City Commission heard nearly two hours of testimony Thursday at a special commission meeting to consider whether to intervene or file briefs in the two cases. The project, which is currently underway, includes logging, thinning, prescribed burning, trails and stream restoration on 17,500 acres within a 60,000-acre project area southwest of Helena. The drainage supplies about half of the water for the city of Helena.
The city convened two collaborative groups – one that disbanded in 2009 and another started in 2014 that remains convened – to comment and help the Forest Service develop Ten Mile-South Helena and other projects. The current collaborative formally supported all aspects of the Ten Mile-South Helena Project with the exception of the use of machinery in inventoried roadless areas.
Helena Hunters and Anglers and the Montana Wildlife Federation filed suit earlier this year contending that the use of heavy machinery in inventoried roadless areas will harm wildlife and degrade the areas’ value as potential wilderness. The groups ask the court to find that the use of heavy machinery violates agency rules, but do not contest work outside of the roadless areas.
Alliance for the Wild Rockies and Native Ecosystems Council argue in their more recent lawsuit that the Forest Service erred in several aspects of its environmental analysis and failed to account for the project’s impact when taken in conjunction with other projects in the area. The groups have asked the court to halt the project and direct the Forest Service to complete further analysis.
Eric Urban, who oversees the city’s Ten Mile Water Treatment Plant, said that if the plant were unable to use water from Ten Mile Creek because it was compromised by the effects of wildfire such as increased sediment, the city can meet its residential needs but not its summer irrigation demand.
The city is looking at replacing a wooden flume in the drainage with underground piping as well as the feasibility of installing a pre-treatment pond that would allow it to still tap clean water in a worst-case scenario, Urban said.
Helena-Lewis and Clark National Forest Supervisor Bill Avey told the commission that based on the agency’s analysis, removing dead trees will have long-term benefits in the roadless areas not only for firefighters but for the ecosystems as well. Removing the trees with machinery is important for safety reasons, he said.
Multiple fire and former fire officials testified in support of the city taking action.
“I cannot send my firemen back into a lightning strike – frankly we’re out-gunned and if the fire comes into town, the city will be outgunned,” said Jordan Alexander, chief of Baxendale Volunteer Fire Department.
Tri-Lakes Fire Chief Bob Drake, who has spent the last week on the North Hills fire, voiced his frustration that the commission has not taken a more aggressive stance against the lawsuits.
“I can’t believe we’re here, you ought to be leading on this,” he told the commissioners.
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Gayle Joslin with Helena Hunters and Anglers testified that the group is sensitive to the need to do some wildfire mitigation, but was unable to engage the Forest Service on its issues with the roadless areas.
“We filed this litigation because we were not able to work out the details with the Forest Service who resisted our discussions on this, so this is the recourse we have right now,” she said.
Stan Fraser with Helena Hunters and Anglers took issue with the Forest Service going against the collaborative’s recommendation that equipment be kept out of roadless areas. He also pointed out that federal timber sales typically lose money and said that in his experience, he has very seldom seen a logging project that was done right and did not look like a clearcut afterward.
The commissioners weighed the testimony and its legal options. The city could file as an intervenor, which would enter the city as a party and able to argue the legal merits, file an amicus brief which allows the city to provide the court with information pertinent to the case, or take no action.
The city had unsuccessfully attempted to offer mediation in the first lawsuit in May.
While Mayor Wilmot Collins favored intervening, Commissioners Heather O’Loughlin, Andres Haladay and Kali Wicks pushed to file briefs with the court about the city’s history and interest in the cases. Commissioner Ed Noonan did not attend the meeting.
Haladay, an attorney, noted that the Forest Service is already obligated to argue the legal merits of the case and felt the city’s perspective and history with the project would be the most compelling to a judge.
O’Loughlin, also an attorney, agreed.
“I think there’s no question there’s a compelling interest of the city in protecting the watershed and protecting the safety of our firefighters and this community,” she said.
Wicks said she believed the context of the testimony would be captured in an amicus brief.
Collins disagreed, saying he was moved by testimony about the potential danger to the city and first responders if a wildfire were to burn into town, and felt the intervenor status would best argue the city’s position.
“I think we should be more involved than just filing an amicus brief, that’s where I’m leaning,” he said.
The commission ultimately voted unanimously to proceed with the brief, although Collins remained somewhat reluctant in his vote given his earlier comments.
Reporter Tom Kuglin can be reached at 447-4076 @IR_TomKuglin