Biggest Timber Sale in Memory Cancelled in Bitterroot National Forest  

Bitteroot National Forest, Montana. Photo: USFS.

The Bitterroot National Forest today formally withdrew its decision authorizing the Gold Butterfly Project.  Friends of the Bitterroot and the Alliance for the Wild Rockies filed a lawsuit on July 10th against the Bitterroot National Forest seeking to stop the Gold Butterfly timber sale which was called “the largest project in memory” by the Ravalli Republic.

“Gold Butterfly would have been the largest, most destructive timber sale in decades on the Bitterroot National Forest,” said Jim Miller, President of Friends of the Bitterroot. “The project included old-growth logging, clearcutting, road building, destruction of wildlife habitat, and threatened 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 Gold Butterfly logging and burning project was planned for an area east of Corvallis, Montana, in the Sapphire Mountains on the Bitterroot National Forest. The Forest Service project called for commercial logging on 5,461 acres, clearcutting across wide swaths of forest, prescribed burning activities on 4,854 acres, and non-commercial logging of smaller trees on 5,040 acres.

“It made absolutely no sense to go forward with this enormously expensive and environmentally destructive project given the nation’s current economic condition.  We are thrilled that the Forest Service came to its senses,” said Mike Garrity, Executive Director of the Alliance for the Wild Rockies. “As the Forest Service’s own data indicates —  federal taxpayers would have lost 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.

Garrity added, “We are also happy that 750 acres, more than one square mile of old-growth forest, have been saved. The Forest Service claimed it was going to conduct 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 was going to chop down 750 acres of increasingly rare old growth forests.”

Likewise, one of the key provisions of the Healthy Forest Restoration Act is that all timber sales issued under the law’s authority must comply with each National Forest’s Forest Plan,” Garrity continued.  “But the Gold Butterfly logging plan violates the Bitterroot National Forest’s Forest Plan standards for both old-growth habitat and road limitations in elk habitat.

Regarding the old growth violation, the Forest Service today admitted:  “When it came out in the complaint that we were not using the standards found the Forest Plan, we took a look and saw that was right.”  This means not only did the agency admit to violating its Forest Plan, but it also implicitly admitted that it violated the Healthy Forest Restoration Act by approving a project that violates the Forest Plan.

Regarding the elk habitat violation, the Forest Service admitted that the project did not comply with the standard for elk habitat and it proposed a new standard for the project. However, that new standard requires at least 30% of the project area be maintained in “elk security blocks.” This project area is already woefully inadequate, with only 8.0% in elk security blocks and the extensive logging and roading from the project will further reduce that security.  However, the Forest Service chose not to disclose its non-compliance with the new standard to the public in the Environmental Impact Statement.

“It’s no wonder the vast majority of the thousands of people who commented opposed the Gold Butterfly project since it’s estimated to run 6,000 to 7,000  loaded logging trucks down Willow Creek Road,” Garrity concluded.  “That’s a dirt road with people’s homes right next to it, which would significantly impact and endanger their lives and families.  The Alliance for the Wild Rockies and Friends of the Bitterroot were honored to stand with the thousands of citizens opposing this project and will continue to exercise our first amendment rights to challenge illegal Forest Service’s decision in court in the future.”