Arrastra Creek Fire

An excavator and harvester-processor work on a fire line south of the Arrastra Creek Fire along Beaver Creek Road last July.

Following last summer's wildfires, the U.S. Forest Service says it must complete additional environmental analysis for a court-halted forestry project near Lincoln.

The Stonewall Vegetation Project included logging and prescribed burning on nearly 5,000 acres within a 24,000-acre project area. Goals for the project centered mainly on fire mitigation and firefighter safety in an area heavily impacted by beetle kill.

Last spring, U.S. District Judge Dana Christensen issued a temporary injunction for Stonewall in response to a lawsuit filed by the Alliance for the Wild Rockies and Native Ecosystems Council. The alliance and council argued the project would negatively impact elk and grizzly bears while exemptions allowing logging in Canada lynx habitat were misapplied.

Steve Kelly, alliance board member, told the Independent Record last year that his group was focused on broader concerns than wildfires, namely the quality of wildlife habitat and the fragmenting that comes with logging. He further questioned the effectiveness of mitigation given the randomness of lightning strikes.

Although Christensen ruled the Forest Service showed evidence the area was susceptible to wildfire, he concluded that there was no indication the area was at imminent risk of wildfire.

When the Park Creek and Arrastra Creek fires burned a few months later within the project area, they became political lightning rods for those looking to reform or squelch environmental litigation.

KD Feeback, a member of the collaborative that originally proposed Stonewall, called the lawsuit counterproductive given that hiding cover for lynx was being lost to the fire.

Helena-Lewis and Clark National Forest Supervisor Bill Avey said Tuesday that the agency does not plan to withdraw the decision greenlighting the project, but must prepare additional analysis due to impacts from the fire.

Post-fire analysis showed that more than 13,000 acres of the project area burned with about 2,700 acres of that slated for prescribed burning. A little less than 50 acres of a timber sale burned as well.

Preliminary analysis showed potential impacts to soils, hydrology and hiding cover for elk, Avey said.

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“We’re not withdrawing our decision in any way, shape or form, but in order to meet our obligations under (the National Environmental Policy Act) and present the most accurate information to the court, and present our best case to the court moving forward, is basically to modify that decision,” he said. “We want the court to make a fully informed decision.”

The court had previously granted the Forest Service additional time for the initial post-fire analysis.

The Forest Service plans to prepare a supplement to the original decision. Avey did not have a cost estimate but believed it would be minimal. The agency expects the additional analysis to last until late summer, and Avey said it is likely work will not commence this year if the court lifts the injunction.

A timber sale contract awarded before the lawsuit is suspended pending the court case, Avey said.

Alliance executive director Mike Garrity disagreed with the agency’s decision to keep the original decision, and says the groups plan to ask the court to render the Stonewall decision moot due to the wildfire. Garrity pointed out that much of the burned acreage included areas already scheduled for prescribed burning.

Any supplemental analysis could not be unbiased given that it relies on keeping the original decision in place, Garrity said. If the court renders the decision moot, the alliance and council would ask that the case be dismissed.

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Reporter Tom Kuglin can be reached at 447-4076 @IR_TomKuglin


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