Mike Garrity

Just like clockwork, Montana’s junior senator, Steve Daines and representative Matt Rosendale, have repeated the timber industry propaganda on forest management at their recent Western Caucus roundtable in Bozeman. Montanans, however, not only deserve better, they deserve the truth.

Rep. Rosendale, like Sen, Daines and Governor Gianforte, has once again attempted to demonize conservation groups by facetiously claiming they get rich by suing the Forest Service.

As one of the organizations that frequently takes the Forest Service to court to make it follow the law like the rest of us, the Alliance for the Wild Rockies files lawsuits under the Equal Access to Justice Act. But it’s not to get rich, it’s to ensure that the Forest Service doesn’t merely serve the for-profit interests of the timber industry. It’s to make the agency use the best available science and to ensure that we have sustainable fish and wildlife habitat on our public lands.

The First Amendment not only guarantees freedom of speech, it also gives citizens the right to sue the federal government for very good reasons. If someone throws a brick through a window, the police enforce the law. But when the federal government breaks the law, citizens are often the only “enforcers” and they have to hire attorneys to represent them in court. The Equal Access to Justice Act ensures “payment of reasonable attorney’s fees and expenses to parties who prevail against the United States in a civil action.”

By far the vast majority of the Equal Access to Justice Act pay-outs go to Social Security disability and veterans’ disability claims, not conservation groups. So when Rosendale, Daines and Gianforte denigrate the Act, they are in essence telling veterans and disabled people they don’t have the right to take the government to court when it doesn’t follow the law.

When logging or other Forest Service proposals fail to protect our land, water quality, and native wildlife, the Alliance for the Wild Rockies takes part in the entire process as required by law. Before we can challenge the Forest Service, we have to comment on the project and file an administrative objection. If necessary, we will go to court to force the federal agencies to follow the law, but we do not get reimbursed for any of the pre-trial work – those costs are picked up 100% by our members.

If and when we prevail, only the legal fees of the attorneys who represent us get paid. The Alliance has no staff attorneys and does not get a penny. What payments our contract attorneys get is because the Forest Service is a serial lawbreaker, our claims are valid, and we win those court challenges about 80% of the time.

If successful plaintiffs could not recover attorneys’ fees, the government could simply drive litigation costs sky high to bankrupt citizens who bring forth valid grievances and only wealthy people could afford to challenge government decisions.

Daines and Rosendale also puppet timber industry false claims that logging prevents wildfires. The truth, however, is that most of the nation’s largest wildfires have burned through thinned areas and clear-cuts, as did the recent Elmo fire near Flathead Lake. Research shows logging has little beneficial effect on wildfire spread and can actually increase fire severity.

It’s time to put aside the oft-repeated and reported myths that the Alliance for the Wild Rockies makes money off lawsuits – as well as the myth that logging prevents wildfires. Americans have a constitutional right to challenge illegal government actions and rest assured, the Alliance for the Wild Rockies will continue to do just that.

Mike Garrity is the Executive Director of the Alliance for the Wild Rockies.

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