Saying that the public was unduly excluded from weighing in, two environmental watchdog groups filed a lawsuit Monday over a U.S. Forest Service project near Lincoln.
Alliance for the Wild Rockies and Native Ecosystems Council filed the suit in U.S. District Court in Missoula challenging the Willow Creek Vegetation Project. The groups contend the Forest Service did not complete required analysis or allow adequate public input of the project under the National Environmental Policy Act, did not consider cumulative impacts of the project, and did not weigh impacts to potential future wilderness designations in the area.
The Helena-Lewis and Clark National Forest late last month approved logging and prescribed burning on about 2,100 acres in the Willow Creek-Dalton Mountain area about 5 miles southwest of Lincoln. The agency cites “overgrown” forests and desire to thin the area of beetle kill to promote the growth of aspen and younger conifer trees.
The project was designed in part through the work of a collaborative group. The Forest Service describes the group as made up of local property owners, private business owners, residents, recreation interests, conservation interests, DNRC, state wildlife agency representatives, members of the Lincoln Restoration Committee and a tribal representative.
Approval of the project came through a “categorical exclusion” allowed under the 2014 Farm Bill. Through that legislation, Gov. Steve Bullock nominated and the Forest Service accepted nearly 5 million acres of Montana’s forests as impacted by disease or insect infestation. In those designated areas, the Forest Service may categorically exclude from full environmental analysis certain projects to address areas of dead or dying trees.
The groups say that despite the categorical exclusion, the Forest Service must analyze the project to show it will not significantly affect the environment.
“The Farm Bill does not obviate the Forest Service’s obligation to conduct a NEPA analysis before taking such a discretionary action to designate landscape-scale areas to address insect or disease threats,” the lawsuit says.
Mike Garrity, executive director of the alliance, said in an interview that the public outside of the collaborative was allowed to comment during the “scoping” phase of the project, but that occurred before any specifics were announced.
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“How does the public comment when the Forest Service says, ‘We’re thinking of doing this and don’t show the public any research?’” he said. “The public can’t really give informed comments.”
While the Forest Service has categorically excluded projects under the Farm Bill in the past, the groups were particularly concerned about the quality of wildlife habitat in the Willow Creek Project. The groups also filed an intent to sue the Forest Service over Canada lynx and will argue that logging and burning will negatively affect the threatened cat.
Although not part of their legal argument, Garrity said the groups are also concerned that logging could push elk off of public and onto private land.
Helena-Lewis and Clark National Forest Supervisor Bill Avey said he had not had a chance to read the lawsuit thoroughly, but called it “unfortunate” that the project, which drew community support, had been litigated.
“From initial discussions to the final decision, every phase we've asked for, and received, input from interested individuals, groups and collaborators who volunteered their time to help inform a decision they want to see implemented on their public lands,” he said. “We hope that we can continue toward implementation soon."
The lawsuit asks the court to require the Forest Service to show analysis for several aspects of the Willow Creek Project and take additional public comment. Specifically, the groups contend that the agency approved the project without showing it had insignificant environmental impacts and that analysis should also document any cumulative effects of the project when taken in conjunction with other projects. The Forest Service should also undertake a wilderness potential analysis, the groups argue, to consider adjacent inventoried roadless areas.
The groups ask that the court halt the project and remand it to the Forest Service for additional analysis. They also request attorney fees and reimbursement of costs and expert witness fees.