Two conservation groups have filed a lawsuit in an attempt to stop the Red Mountain Flume Chessman Reservoir timber project that officials say is necessary to protect Helena’s water supply.
The Montana Ecosystems Defense Council and the Native Ecosystems Council filed the suit in Federal District Court in Missoula on Thursday. The groups cited threats to wildlife, other timber harvest in the area and a slim chance of catastrophic wildfire as the reasons for the suit. The groups also said the project needed more environmental analysis.
“The reason the city and Forest Service give for the timber sale is to protect the watershed from wildfire,” said Steve Kelly, director of the Montana Ecosystems Council. “But there is no scientific evidence that indicates forest conditions in the Ten Mile watershed are abnormal. Pine beetles and fire are not an indication of poor health in lodgepole pine forests.”
The Ten Mile watershed offers habitat and clean water for fish and wildlife, the suit said. The area is home to elk, lynx, wolverines and grizzly bears, and logging and road-building will destroy habitat and pollute the watershed by causing erosion and sediment, it said.
“Clearcutting and running bulldozers in a city watershed is a flat-out stupid idea if protecting water quality is your goal,” said Sara Johnson, director of the Native Ecosystems Council. “Intact forests provide clean water; logging roads and clearcuts don’t.”
The project calls for forestry work on 490 acres around the 4.8-mile flume and reservoir 10 miles southwest of Helena. The work includes logging more than 300 acres, and building fuel breaks on another 158 acres. The Forest Service would build about half a mile of temporary road, and prescribed burning would complete the project.
Mountain pine beetles killed thousands of trees in the drainage, leaving vast swaths of standing dead lodgepole pine. Logging has already taken place on city-owned lands and other private lands to remove the dead trees.
If a fire did occur in the Ten Mile drainage, Chessman Reservoir could easily be shut down to allow sediment to settle, Kelly said. The city could still get water from four other intakes, including the Missouri River Water Treatment Plant, he added.
Officials have indicated that moving water from the Missouri River is more expensive and would increase water rates because it must be pumped uphill.
In 2008, the city of Helena convened a collaborative committee and the Forest Service performed an environmental assessment of the area. Executive director of the Alliance for the Wild Rockies Mike Garrity served on the collaborative. The alliance has sued the Forest Service numerous times over timber sales, but Garrity said the agency agreed to decommission an equal amount of roads as it intended to build, so he supported it.
“It’s not how I would’ve designed it, but on this project they followed the rules so I’m not going to oppose it,” Garrity said.
Garrity expressed his concern about potential Forest Service logging in the area, which Johnson echoed.
The agency’s interdisciplinary team is planning 30 miles of new logging roads that will access 20 to 40 percent of the watershed for “treatment” including logging, she said.
“The Forest Service’s Clancy Unionville Timber Sale has already clearcut right up to the boundary of the Ten Mile watershed. Now they want to march into the Ten Mile watershed without telling the public the full extent of their logging plans,” Johnson said.
Federal and city officials have long said that a catastrophic wildfire in the Ten Mile drainage could pollute the city’s water supply, which accounts for up to 80 percent of the city’s water. The Helena National Forest announced the project would move forward in April, after nearly seven years of planning.
“It’s absolutely unfortunate the interpretation of laws allow a couple of individuals to get in the way of protecting the city of Helena’s water supply,” said City Manager Ron Alles. “In this case, 490 acres out of thousands of acres goes a long ways to mitigate a catastrophic wildfire up there.”
The suit does not ask for an immediate court injunction to halt the project. The groups will wait for a response from the Forest Service, but asking for an injunction depended on what the agency decided to do, Kelly said.
The Helena National Forest will continue down the planning path with the Department of Natural Resources and Conservation, and figure out how the lawsuit will impact that plan, said Kathy Bushnell, public affairs officer for the forest.
“We still believe this is an important project, which is why we proposed it,” she said. “We don’t know how this might impact it.”