Enviros: Don’t blame us for roasted timber sales

Posted: September 3, 2015

Source: Flathead News
Photo courtesy of Ted Steiner

Martson fireTwo environmental groups claim they’re not to blame for timber sales that burned up in fires near the Bob MarshallWilderness.

The Swan View Coalition and Friends of the Wild Swan sued the Forest Service and lost on appeal in their challenge of the Spotted Bear River project and the Soldier Addition project. Both sales were designed to thin forests near Spotted Bear and Meadow Creek and provide merchantable timber.

At least one sale, the Cedar-Chipmunk Fire sale, which was part of the Soldier Addition project, burned in the Bear Creek Fire.

Another sale, the Tin Mule, may also have been burned in the Trail Creek Fire.

But the two environmental groups claim their lawsuits didn’t delay the timber sales. They note the courts never granted an injunction they asked for to stop the timber sales.

“While that project was in litigation there was no court ordered temporary restraining order or preliminary injunction that held it up. In fact the Forest Service let contracts on the project at its own pace and logging began during the time the lawsuit was in progress,” Arlene Montgomery and Keith Hammer wrote in a letter to the Hungry Horse News last week. Montgomery is the program director of Friends of the Wild Swan and Hammer is the chairman of the Swan View Coalition.

They also claim they supported thinning in areas like the Meadow Creek campground to reduce risk of wildfire.

But Joe Krueger, a planner for the Flathead National Forest, said litigation, injunction or not, slows project timelines.

“We have to go through several other processes to get agreement from the Washington offices to proceed with a (litigated)timber sale,” he said.

Both projects were proposed several years ago. Soldier Addition in 2009, Spotted Bear in 2011. Lawsuits came shortly after the administrative appeals process. They then dragged through the courts for years, until the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals upheld the projects in March of this year.

“Absolutely litigation slows down what we’re trying to achieve on the landscape,” Krueger said.

Krueger also noted that the Forest Service, from a programmatic standpoint, would likely avoid selling sales that are being litigated in favor of sales that are not being challenged. It makes the logistics of handling contracts easier. For example, a contractor could go through the expense of moving heavy equipment into a sale, only to find it stopped by the courts.

But Hammer and Montgomery claim the Forest is playing politics.

“Political grandstanding and finger pointing are not productive nor do they address this year’s climatic conditions that are driving this fire season or the fact that climate warming has already increased the length of the fire season in general,” they wrote.

But politics are sure to come into play soon. Montana Congressman Ryan Zinke has introduced a bill that would allow for categorical exclusions from environmental review of up to 15,000 acres for some timber sales designed to stem the risk of wildfires. Montana Sen. Steve Daines said recently that timber reform will be his top priority when Congress reconvenes after Labor Day. Sen. Jon Tester has also long touted his Forest Jobs and Recreation Act, which calls for a collaborative community effort in creating timber projects, while limiting the ability of groups to sue the Forest Service. Tester’s bill also includes wilderness provisions. Zinke’s bill also calls for collaboration.

Whether a compromise package can be struck remains to be seen, but with the West burning, momentum to do something is building.