Forest Service Sued For Approving Project Despite Alleged Environmental Violations

On Friday, Friends of The Bitterroot and Alliance For Wild Rockies sued the U.S. Forest Service (USFS) for authorization of the Gold Butterfly Project on the Bitterroot National Forest in Montana.  The project authorizes 5,461 acres of commercial logging in the national forest, and 7,238 acres of non-commercial activities described as “cutting smaller trees and planting trees.”

Additionally, the project would allow for road maintenance on 80.1 miles of road and construction of 6.4 miles of new road, as well as several openings and closures for the purpose of the construction and logging.  Finally, the project will relocate two trailheads, create new horse campsites at a campground, and replace two culverts at two creeks in the park.  The project is expected to take eight years from initiation to completion.  Aaccording to an itemized chart in the complaint, the project will cost the USFS $5,790,869 with the USFS anticipating a $1,572,054 in revenue—resulting in a net loss of $4.2 million. 

The plaintiffs argued that the USFS’s approval violates several federal environmental laws: “the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA), 42 U.S.C. §4331 et seq., the National Forest Management Act (NFMA), 16 U.S.C. §1600 et seq., the Healthy Forest Restoration Act, 16 U.S.C. §6591 et seq, and the Administrative Procedure Act (APA), 5 U.S.C. §§ 701 et seq.”  Specifically, the USFS’s alleged failure to use the Forest Plan definition of “old growth” does not comply with the “standards for retention and viability” stated in the above laws.  Thus, the plaintiffs argued “[i]n other words, the entire old growth analysis for the Project area is invalid until the Forest Service applies the Forest Plan old growth definition.”  In support of this claim, the plaintiffs cited a recent Ninth Circuit decision where the court agreed the USFS “deviate[d] from a standard set forth in the Payette Forest Plan” and ruled the USFS’s decision was arbitrary and capricious. 

The second claim alleged the Forest Plan amendment approved for the project violates the above regulations as well because it violates the elk habitat effectiveness standard.  In the analysis of the Forest Plan amendment, the USFS implied the elk habitat effectiveness is “no longer the best available science, rather, Hillis et al (1991) security is now the best available science.”  However, the Hillis elk security standard requires 30% of an “area to be maintained as elk security.” The plaintiffs asserted the plan “fails to disclose the fact that the Project analysis area currently only has 8.0% elk security, and the Project will further reduce that elk security to 7.7%.”

Finally, the third claim argued that due to the above allegations the USFS also violated the Healthy Forests Restoration Act (HFRA) and the above acts.  Under 16 U.S.C. § 6512 (b) of the HFRA a “hazardous fuel reduction project shall be conducted consistent with the resource management plan,” but as alleged, “the Project is not consistent with the Bitterroot Forest Plan.”  Furthermore, the plaintiffs asserted the project violates the Forest Plan old growth requirements, the standards for elk habitat effectiveness, and therefore does not comply with the HFRA.

The plaintiffs have sought for the court to rule that the project violates the law, to either vacate the project decision or enjoin implementation, and to award attorneys and expert fees.

The plaintiffs are represented by Rebecca K. Smith of Public Interest Defense Center, PC.  The case is before Judge Dana L. Christensen in the District of Montana.