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A court-halted forestry project near Lincoln has become a lightning rod in the political debate over litigation and forest management, and took center stage in a Helena roundtable of project supporters hosted by Rep. Greg Gianforte on Friday.

The Stonewall Vegetation Project north and northwest of Lincoln was slated to use thinning and prescribed burning aimed at mitigating wildfire and “forest health” concerns about swaths of dead lodge pole pine and encroachment of other conifers into areas of ponderosa pine. The project came from the collaborative Lincoln Restoration Committee and was approved by the U.S. Forest Service after eight years of meeting and planning.

Environmental watchdogs Alliance for the Wild Rockies and Native Ecosystems Council sued over wildlife concerns, chiefly the impacts to federally listed Canada lynx and grizzly bear habitat.

In June, U.S. District Court Judge Dana Christensen issued an injunction, stating that the groups were likely to prevail. He found in part that the Forest Service had not proven an imminent danger of wildfire, and wildfire concerns did not absolve the agency from obligations under the Endangered Species Act.

In issuing the injunction, Christensen cited the well-known “Cottonwood” decision. In that case, the Forest Service was ordered to re-initiate consultation with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service after the latter re-evaluated and greatly expanded designated critical lynx habitat.

Earlier this summer lightning sparked a pair of fires in the project area that have burned about 18,000 acres, briefly triggering evacuations for a small number of residences.

At the roundtable, Gianforte was joined by representatives from the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation, Gary Burnett with the Blackfoot Challenge and member of the restoration committee, and an area landowner.

Burnett voiced his frustration over the slow pace of the Forest Service process and then seeing the work of the collaborative halted by the litigation. The alliance and council were not part of the collaborative, although they were invited, he said.

“We’d really like to hear their voice, understand what their values are so we can incorporate that in,” he said.

The alliance, council and some similar groups have declined to collaborate. Criticism of collaboration has ranged from logistical concerns to more fundamental objections, arguing that agencies have legal obligations that collaboration can attempt to compromise or sidestep through concessions by the participants.

For Stonewall and many other projects, the groups submit comments directly to the Forest Service and file formal objections during analysis required under the National Environmental Policy Act.

But the lack of collaboration was a sticking point for those at the roundtable.

Proponents of collaboration see the process as consensus building and the way to incorporate a variety of viewpoints into recommendations to the Forest Service. 

“It wasn’t the Forest Service that stopped the project, it was somebody who didn’t participate in the collaborative project,” Gianforte said, and others agreed.

Mark Lambrecht, director of government affairs with RMEF, said the organization supports reforms aimed at limiting litigation, including curbing compensation for attorney fees when litigation succeeds. The foundation also supports reforms to fire borrowing, which occurs when agencies must defund other programs to pay for firefighting, increased size and use of categorical exclusions, which exempt environmental analysis for certain projects, and development of a pilot arbitration process for objections to forestry projects.

“From our perspective what these organizations are doing is not trying to bring about better forest management when they step in … this has become a business model for them,” Lambrecht said, citing more than $600,000 in a decade of attorney fees paid to alliance legal counsel under the Equal Access to Justice Act.

Cottonwood is also in the crosshairs of Montana’s U.S. senators, who have pushed to legislatively overturn the decision. Lambrecht indicated support for that legislation as well.

The alliance and council have defended their objection over wildlife concerns. During the Forest Service objection period, Sara Jane Johnson with the council, criticized the project’s impacts to lynx habitat. More recently Steve Kelly, who serves on the alliance board of directors, said the group was concerned about fragmenting wildlife habitat through logging.

Tom Toman, who serves as a biologist for RMEF, said the organization is interested in projects that promote healthy wildlife habitat for a variety of species.

“So we’re not in bed with loggers when we support Stonewall, we’re in this for wildlife habitat and we think the forest has done an excellent job on this,” he said, adding that his main criticism is that the project is not large enough.

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Toman advocated for a variety of habitat types including that created by logging and thinning as beneficial for elk and other species, and believes the best way to achieve that is through forest management.

The fires of 2017, he said, will benefit elk through creating forage, but have some negative consequences for other species.

Species specifically dependent on burns were not mentioned, but the roundtable did agree on the importance of leaving snags and some dead wood for wildlife in project designs.

With the discussion around forest management, litigation and Stonewall intensifying as smoke filled Montana’s skies, wildfire and forestry experts have noted the ecological role of wildfire while cautioning hyperbole over the goals of mitigation and the effectiveness of logging alone in mitigating wildfire.

As Gianforte and others have come out in support of projects like Stonewall and denounced the alliance and council as environmental “radicals” or “obstructionists,” those at the roundtable were careful to say that the project would not have stopped a wildfire, but could mitigate intensity and ability for firefighters to work.

“We’re not going to stop big fires from coming,” Burnett said, analogizing mitigation measures to constructing levies before a hurricane hits.

Gianforte agreed in a post-roundtable interview, saying “the Stonewall project would not have prevented this fire,” but removing fuels would mitigate intensity.

Gianforte said the lawsuit “shut down eight years of hard work” and voiced his support for curbing litigation via legislation.

“We have an opportunity to address this … we will continue to allow people to have a voice in the process, but we have to prevent them from having a business model,” dependent on litigation.

Absent from the roundtable discussion was climate change, which the majority of scientists predict will lengthen fire seasons and lead to more large fires.

When asked about his view of climate change in the wildfire conversation, Gianforte agreed with scientists that the climate is changing, but said, “We can’t control the temperature outside or how much precipitation we get. What we can control is whether or not we have congested forests that are ready to light up.”

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

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