Two conservation groups, Alliance for the Wild Rockies and Native Ecosystems Council, filed a lawsuit in Federal District Court in Missoula on December 11th challenging the 1,112 acre Stonewall Logging Project in the Helena-Lewis and Clark National Forest about four miles northwest of Lincoln, MT.
We contend the proposed changes to the Forest Plan to eliminate big game security and thermal cover standards in the project violate a number of federal laws and threaten the area’s elk herd as well as grizzly bears, bull trout and lynx.
When the project was originally proposed, the Forest Service used its normal fear tactic — claiming the area needed large-scale logging and burning to avoid ‘catastrophic’ wildfire. However, when a wildfire did start in the project area prior to implementation of the project the results were dramatically different than the Forest Service’s dire predictions.
What happened, in reality, is that the Forest Service found the vast majority of the area within the Park Creek fire perimeter – 70 percent – was unburned or burned in a natural mosaic pattern at low to very low severity with low tree mortality. Only a very small portion of the area – 8 percent – burned at high severity. The fire mainly burned where the Forest Service planned a prescribed fire, so the wildfire accomplished the Forest Service’s goals but the wildfire did it for free.
Montana’s big game management agency warned that due to the loss of public land elk security cover, elk are now spending more time on private lands, which causes conflict with landowners as well as increasing the difficulty of managing the herd size due to loss of hunting opportunities on public lands.
As Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks biologists told the Forest Service: “The number of elk that spend the majority of the year on some nearby private lands has increased dramatically between 1986 and 2013. FWP has consistently urged the [Helena National Forest] to increase functional fall habitat security on the Lincoln Ranger District . . . .”
The Stonewall project is in violation of the National Environmental Policy Act as the Environmental Impact Statement misrepresents or fails to accurately disclose the findings and recommendations of Montana’s Fish, Wildlife and Parks biologists regarding elk security and elk objectives on the Lincoln Ranger District. The agency also ignored the ‘best available science’ regarding displacement of elk from degraded public lands onto private lands and the resulting impacts to hunting opportunities.
The Forest Service has repeatedly issued ‘site-specific’ amendments to its Forest Plan to avoid complying with elk security standards in order to enable more clearcutting and road-building. The agency has issued at least eight such exemptions prior to this logging project, which includes another exemption.
There are at least three reasonably foreseeable logging projects that may also include this exemption in the near future. This practice begs the question: “What good is a Forest Plan if the agency repeatedly exempts itself from following it?” This question is particularly important in light of the documented loss of elk hunting opportunities on public lands in this area.
There are laws in place to protect public land elk hunting opportunities, and protect important endangered species habitat. The concept of ‘law and order’ does not just apply to individual citizens — it also applies to the government. When the federal government violates our laws, it becomes the public’s responsibility to hold the government accountable. In this case, we apparently have to sue the government to force it to follow the law. So that’s what we’re doing.
Mike Garrity is the Executive Director of the Alliance for the Wild Rockies.