A controversial wildfire mitigation and timber project near Lincoln has been sent back to the U.S. Forest Service to reconsider as a result of a judge's ruling this week, but officials are still assessing what their next steps will be.
Last year, U.S. District Judge Dana Christensen agreed with the Alliance for the Wild Rockies and Native Ecosystems Council that the Stonewall Vegetation Project should be delayed pending a lawsuit. Christensen ruled that an injunction only temporarily postpones the potential benefits of the project, and the risk of fire was not imminent and did not outweigh Forest Service obligations under the Endangered Species Act.
The project area located about four miles north and west of Lincoln covers 24,000 acres within Lewis and Clark and Powell counties. The project came from recommendations of the collaborative Lincoln Restoration Committee and includes logging on more than 2,100 acres and prescribed burning of more than 2,700 acres.
The Forest Service’s goal was to increase resiliency to insects and wildfire by diversifying tree species and age classes while promoting aspen and white bark pine growth, according to planning documents.
Last summer following the injunction, the Park Creek fire burned about 13,000 acres within the project area. The case has drawn significant political attention and has often been cited by those seeking to reform environmental litigation laws.
In response to the fire, the Forest Service filed a motion to reconsider the project in order to conduct post-fire analysis. The agency wanted to analyze environmental changes caused by the blaze as it looked at the project’s viability. The agency asked that its original decision to complete the project remain in place while it does a supplemental environmental impact statement.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Melissa Hornbein, citing court documents, on Thursday said the agency still saw a need for the project with its request.
“It was the agency’s feeling that even though the fires burned through, there was still the potential for large damaging fires and the need had not been negated,” she said. That rationale included maintaining an awarded timber sale contract as an economic factor in keeping the original decision.
On Tuesday, Christensen granted a motion to voluntarily remand the project to the Forest Service for reconsideration of its environmental analysis, but vacated the original decision to complete the project.
Those who brought the lawsuit applauded the ruling.
"Today is a great day for elk and other wildlife in the Lincoln area,” said Mike Garrity, executive director of the Alliance for the Wild Rockies. “The Forest Service’s Stonewall project decision has been vacated by the court and the agency will now undertake a new public participation process for the Stonewall project to determine whether to proceed with the project, change it, or scrap it completely.
“We sincerely hope that the agency will seriously consider our concerns about high road density and degraded elk habitat in the project area, which are concerns that the State FWP has repeatedly raised."
Christensen’s ruling states that keeping an original decision in place occurs only in rare circumstances where vacating it has severe circumstances. Stonewall had not met that high burden, he found.
“While there has been a fire demonstrating the risks of heavy fuel loads in the project area, (the Forest Service has) not explained why any delay as a result of vacatur will increase the magnitude of this risk and, importantly, the fire has already occurred,” according to Christensen’s decision.
Hornbein said it was still uncertain if the original lawsuit has been dismissed as a result of the ruling and what the practical implications will be for Stonewall. It is safe to assume that supplemental environmental analysis will continue relying on existing data and the process will include public comment.
Supplemental analysis must now arrive at a new decision, which is a lengthier process than potentially affirming the previous decision.
“I think it’s safe to say it is a longer process, but what’s unknown is how much longer,” she said.