Advocates Sue to Block Montana Forest Plan

On Tuesday, the Cottonwood Environmental Law Center filed a lawsuit against the United States Forest Service alleging that the defendant violated the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) by failing to adjust a Forest Plan for the Custer-Gallatin National Forest (Gallatin Forest) in Montana. The plaintiff averred that the plan lacked appropriate environmental analysis on how approved watershed maintenance projects affected the habitats of two endangered species, elk and wolverines, residing within the national park.  

The NEPA and associated regulations require the Forest Service to release a Forest Plan before overseeing the management of any federally-owned forest. While any Forest Plan can be used indefinitely, the regulations do require a modification of the Forest Plan when the Forest Service approves new projects that will affect said forest by presenting a new environmental risk not covered by the current plan. The modifications to any forest plan must specifically include “either draft or final environmental impact statements if [t]here are significant new circumstances or information relevant to environmental concerns….”

The Forest Service finalized the initial plan for the Gallatin Forest in 1987. In 2013, two water treatment projects were approved in order to prevent sediment erosion and protect against wildfires. However, following the approval of the projects, a judge granted an injunction enjoining the projects from proceeding until the Forest Service prepared a biological assessment in an environmental impact statement that laid out how the project would protect the at-risk wolverine and elk populations. In 2020, the court received the assessment, however, the assessment then was challenged by the Alliance for the Wild Rockies on the grounds that the assessment failed to use the entirety of the impacted area in its analysis.

The court ultimately lifted the injunction holding that the NEPA allowed biological assessments that use two-thirds or more of an affected area when determining the impact of any given project for the purposes of a Forest Plan’s supplemental environmental impact report. The plaintiff now challenged the lifting of the injunction as the biological assessment neither used the best available science nor was finalized in an environmental impact statement as a permanent modification to the 1987 Forest Plan for the Gallatin National Forest.

Cottonwood specifically questioned the accuracy of the biological assessment by alleging that the assessment overestimated the amount of sediment that would be reduced with the project while overestimating the adverse impact on animal habitats. The plaintiff additionally proffered that failure to formally include a biological assessment inside the Forest Plan gave the public no opportunity to comment on the necessity of the approved projects as required by federal law when any change is proposed to a forest plan.