Two Lincoln-area wildfires are burning within an area the Forest Service approved for fire mitigation work starting this year, but is currently under federal court injunction.
Now a coalition of groups and individuals will get to weigh in on the court case and urge a federal judge to allow the project to proceed.
Late last summer the Helena-Lewis and Clark National Forest greenlighted a timber and prescribed burning project called the Stonewall Vegetation Project north and northwest of Lincoln. Within a 24,000-acre project area, the agency approved commercial logging and thinning on 2,100 acres and prescribed fire on 2,700 acres.
“It was about creating resilient forest conditions, and part of that being protection for the community of Lincoln,” said Bill Avey, forest supervisor. “There’s fuel loading with high mortality and there’s a history of fire starts in that area that’ve been increasingly hard to catch.”
Earlier this month lightning sparked the Park Creek and Arrastra Creek wildfires in the project area, burning more than 6,000 acres to date and still largely uncontained.
Last winter, environmental watchdogs Alliance for the Wild Rockies and Native Ecosystems Council filed a lawsuit challenging the project. The groups contended it would negatively impact elk and grizzly bears while exemptions allowing logging in Canada lynx habitat were misapplied.
With the first timber sale sold to a contractor, this spring a federal judge granted a preliminary injunction temporarily halting the project. Judge Dana Christensen ruled that an injunction only temporarily postpones the potential benefits of the project and found the risk of fire was not imminent and did not outweigh the Forest Service’s obligation to follow the Endangered Species Act.
“The Court acknowledges that Defendants have presented evidence that the Project area is susceptible to severe and intense wildfires due to elevated fuel levels caused by ‘heavy accumulations of dead and down timber.’ However, though there is the possibility of serious fire activity within the boundaries of the Project, there is no indication that this area is at risk of imminent fire activity,” Christensen wrote.
In issuing the injunction, Christensen also 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. With the consultation ongoing, the results could impact the Stonewall Project and activities in lynx habitat.
This week, Christensen agreed to allow multiple parties to write a brief in support of the Forest Service and Stonewall. Among those filing the brief are the Lincoln Restoration Committee, Lewis and Clark and Powell counties, Lincoln Volunteer Fire Department, the Montana Logging Association and other timber interests, the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation, the National Wildlife Federation and several Lincoln-area residents.
KD Feeback, the attorney filing the brief and co-chair of the Lincoln Restoration Committee, says the goal of entering the lawsuit is to sway the judge to allow the project to go forward “for the simple reason it would prevent exactly what we’re looking at,” in regard to the fires.
The project came out of the collaborative committee and was approved by the Forest Service, he continued.
“There’s literally thousands of acres of dead standing lodgepole that’s begging for a fire and very close to Lincoln,” he said. “I think it’s fair to say that it’s the pervasive belief of not only the Lincoln Restoration Committee but the rest of the people that these giant wildfires are an environmental disaster.
“I think the plaintiffs are crazy and they’re wrapped around lynx habitat and hiding cover, but it’s all on fire now so it’s counterproductive.”
Steve Kelly, Alliance for the Wild Rockies board member, said his organization did not object to the groups entering the lawsuit. The criticisms are similar to what he often hears in response to litigation.
“I understand the leverage and the politics,” he said. “We’re going to hold our ground and see what we can do to protect wildlife habitat and the guys that want to go out and cut trees will do what they want.”
Kelly said his group is focused on broader concerns than wildfire, namely the quality of wildlife habitat and the fragmenting that comes with logging.
“The lightning is random and trying to predict on this broad landscape where to thin to prevent fire is just crazy odds of being successful,” he said.
As firefighters carve fire breaks amid hot, dry and windy conditions, logs pile high and are moved out. Along Beaver Creek Road northwest of Lincoln, feller bunchers cut a 100-foot wide swath “to make a defensible line and protecting structures,” Avey said.
Under the emergency order with the fire, those logs can be cut and will eventually go to sale, he added.
While the project would not have been completed by the time the fires started, Avey says some timber harvest would have commenced and crews may have also conducted prescribed burns.
It is unclear at this point whether the analysis that authorized the original Stonewall project will need to be updated after the fires and changes to the landscape. Or that question could be moot depending on how Christensen ultimately rules.
Avey declined to offer his opinion of the lawsuit and injunction, but said the Forest Service is operating within the constructs of the law and what the courts have ruled.