A federal appeals court is allowing a Forest Service project southwest of Helena to proceed while also allowing the agency to reevaluate a portion of its original decision.
The Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled in favor of the Forest Service and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service over claims brought by Alliance for the Wild Rockies and Native Ecosystems Council that the agencies failed to adequately analyze the impacts of the Telegraph Vegetation Project on threatened grizzly bears and Canadian lynx. The court also agreed to allow the Forest Service to withdraw a portion of the project that it admitted used inaccurate mapping.
Under the ruling, the 5,600-acre Telegraph project located 15 miles southwest of Helena will be allowed to proceed.
“We are very pleased with the Ninth Circuit court’s decision and that project implementation will continue to provide important fuels reduction and forest health work, along with economic benefits to Powell and Jefferson Counties,” Helena-Lewis and Clark National Forest Supervisor Bill Avey said in a statement. “It has been a real community effort getting to this point – counties, community groups and partners have all remained committed throughout the entire process in order to accomplish much –needed work on our public lands.”
Last year a federal judge dismissed a lawsuit brought by the groups. The council and alliance argued that the project violated environmental laws while threatening fish and wildlife habitat. They also claim that the Forest Service failed to adequately consider the “cumulative impacts” of the adjacent Ten Mile-South Helena Project.
Judge Dana Christensen dismissed the lawsuit in favor of the Forest Service mostly on procedural grounds, finding that the groups had not sufficiently addressed several issues brought in court filings.
The alliance and council then appealed, which led to the ruling earlier this month.
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In order to implement the project the Forest Service was required to consult with the Fish and Wildlife Service on specific impacts to grizzlies. The court found that analysis to be consistent with requirements for road density and temporary displacement of bears during logging and other work.
In the second portion of the court’s order, the Forest Service proposed logging and thinning in areas defined as the “wildland-urban interface,” which is where houses or cabins meet the forest. Regulations related to lynx allow the removal of some trees and vegetation in lynx habitat if it falls within the wildland-urban interface and if the agency shows it is part of a wildfire mitigation project.
The alliance inspected the area and reported only a handful of houses. The Forest Service conceded in court documents that it erred in calculating the size of the wild-land urban interface based on discrepancies between what qualifies.
“The Powell County definition of the WUI is one house for every 40 acres,” said Mike Garrity, executive director with the alliance. “I drove all over Telegraph and counted houses and I only counted eight. That doesn’t meet the definition.”
Garrity said the potential impacts of the additional analysis are under dispute and being briefed by attorneys to the court. The Forest Service contends that only about 50 acres may be impacted but he believes the area is closer to 1,500 acres.
While the groups argued that the project should be halted pending the additional analysis, the court disagreed.
"Delaying the project in the interim could have negative consequences for the environment and public safety, as the project was designed to improve forest health and create safer firefighting conditions," the court wrote.