Groups sue Bitterroot National Forest to stop Gold Butterfly logging

Friends of the Bitterroot and the Alliance for the Wild Rockies have sued the Bitterroot National Forest in Missoula federal district court, alleging Forest Service employees withheld important information from the public in addition to substituting new methods of assessing forest quality without being able to justify the methods. (file photo)

The Bitterroot National Forest recently announced the approval of one of the biggest forest management projects in recent history, but a new lawsuit claims it cut several corners to justify the logging.

Bitterroot resident Gail Goheen is concerned about corners of a different kind. She lives below the pending Gold Butterfly forest project in the Sapphire Mountains east of Corvallis and is worried that 40-ton logging trucks might miss one of the S-turns on its way down Willow Creek Road.

Even if they can navigate the curvy road coming down from the project, the planned 6,000 to 7,000 truckloads needed to bring the logs out will likely take a toll on the chip-sealed and gravel road, the residents along it, and the decades-old bridge rated to 19 tons that passes over the Bitterroot Irrigation District canal.

The upper gravel section of narrow road runs along her property for about three-quarters of a mile.

“That bridge is our only route to the grocery store or the hospital. What do we do if the bridge collapses?” Goheen said. “I worry about who’s going to pay for all this, and I’m really concerned with people’s health and safety in the meantime. It shouldn’t fall on the taxpayer.”

The Gold Butterfly project – hailed as one of the largest projects on the Bitterroot Forest in recent memory – includes tree cutting on almost 7,400 acres. Almost 5,500 acres of that would be commercial timber sales that include sections of clear-cutting, while noncommercial thinning of smaller trees would occur on 4,000 acres, most of which overlaps the timber sales. The Forest Service would also use prescribed burns on almost 4,900 acres. All of the work could take up to eight years.

After being proposed in May 2017, the draft environmental study came out a year later, and Goheen went to work digging into how all the truck traffic could affect her and her neighbors. Willow Creek Road is the only road planned for the trucks to use, so between the high volume of heavy traffic, the resulting wear-and-tear on the road and the dust, Goheen wasn’t happy and submitted her comments.

“The county road department monitored the road a few years ago and counted 433 car trips a day,” Goheen said. “A logging truck weighs 80,000 pounds, which is equivalent to 4,000 car trips. You can start to see what’s going to happen to that road.”

Out of more than 100 public comments, a majority opposed the project. Goheen was surprised when it was finalized in November last year.

Other people were also surprised. So, on Friday, the Friends of the Bitterroot and the Alliance for the Wild Rockies sued the Bitterroot National Forest in Missoula federal district court, alleging Forest Service employees withheld important information from the public in addition to substituting new methods of assessing forest quality without being able to justify the methods.

“Gold Butterfly is the largest, most destructive timber sale in decades on the Bitterroot National Forest,” said Jim Miller, President of Friends of the Bitterroot. “The project includes old-growth logging, clearcutting, road building, destruction of wildlife habitat, and threatens spawning streams for endangered bull trout. Although it was broadly opposed by the public, the Forest Service ignored citizen input and a viable alternative that would have achieved the purpose of the project without seriously disrupting the ecological integrity of the area.”

The lawsuit says the Forest Service is breaking various laws related to three parts of its project: using a new way to define old-growth forest that allows for more logging; ignoring that the Forest Plan sets aside a some areas that should remain untouched for elk; and using the Healthy Forests Restoration Act as justification for the project but then not complying with the act’s requirements.

“The Forest Service claims it’s conducting this logging under the provisions of the Healthy Forest Restoration Act, but there’s a real legal problem with that since that law actually prohibits logging old-growth forests – and this project will chop down 750 acres of increasingly rare old growth forests,” said Mike Garrity, executive director of the Alliance for the Wild Rockies.

The Bitterroot National Forest will soon be writing a new forest management plan but for now, it still depends on one published in 1987. And that’s the crux of all three parts of the lawsuit.

The 1987 plan defines “old-growth” such that at least 15 large trees should remain per acre and the canopy should extend across 75% of the area. It also said the stands must be at least 40 acres

The lawsuit alleges that the Gold Butterfly analysis didn’t provide enough information to the public about existing old-growth stands and used a different assessment of old-growth developed by Forest Service scientist Pat Green. The new definition would reduce the number of trees to eight to 10 trees per acre and a canopy cover of just 33%.

“The old growth criteria used for the project are significantly less protective than the old growth definition and criteria set forth in the Forest Plan standard, although the Forest Service never clearly disclosed that fact to the public,” the lawsuit said.

On the second issues of elk, the 1987 Forest Plan also requires the agency to manage some of project area as elk habitat by minimizing roads and keeping a certain density of trees for thermal cover in the winter.

The project environmental study acknowledged that six drainages in the project area violate the 1987 Forest Plan requirements for elk habitat. But then the forest supervisor created an amendment to the Forest Plan, saying the agency was using a new measurement of elk habitat, the Hillis standard developed in 1991.

But according to the lawsuit, the analysis misapplies the Hillis standard and allows more logging roads in the area, which tend to increase elk mortality.

“In summary, the Forest Service has eliminated the prior elk habitat standard for this Project area and replaced it with nothing; although the agency mentions Hillis, it does not actually apply the science,” the lawsuit said.

Finally, the Healthy Forests Restoration Act – which allows logging and burning projects to reduce the threat of wildfires near communities – requires that projects maximize the retention of old-growth and are consistent with existing forest plans.

But the Gold Butterfly project doesn’t follow the 1987 forest plan definitions of old-growth stands and elk habitat, so the lawsuit argues the Forest Service can’t use the Healthy Forests Restoration Act as a reason for the project.

The Alliance for the Wild Rockies filed a Freedom of Information Act request to get internal U.S. Forest Service documents. The documents showed the cost for the entire project is $5.8 million and the timber sales are expected to generate $1.6 million.

“It makes absolutely no sense to go forward with this enormously expensive and environmentally destructive project given the nation’s current economic condition,” Garrity said “As the Forest Service’s own data indicates, federal taxpayers will lose a stunning $4.2 million on the project. Significantly, this information was buried in internal agency documents, and the agency did not honestly disclose this number to the public in the Environmental Impact Statement.”

On July 2, the two environmental organizations also sent the U.S. Forest Service a 60-day notice of intent to sue over the project’s potential effects on grizzly bears, wolverines and bull trout.

“The new logging roads, clearcuts, and other logging will send sediment into area streams, which is in violation of the Endangered Species Act since the streams are in federally-designated bull trout critical habitat,” Garrity said.

BNF Supervisor Matt Anderson said the Forest Service is reading the lawsuit over and believes its work is on solid ground.

“We have not had a chance to read the lawsuit thoroughly as we just received it,” Anderson said. “It is unfortunate that the project, which drew community support, has been litigated. This is an important project that improves forest health and water quality, reduces potential fire severity, and is good for our local economy and jobs. We believe we did our due diligence under the law.”

Contact reporter Laura Lundquist at lundquist@missoulacurrent.com.