Conservation Groups Sue to Stop Massive Logging and Burning Project in Montana’s Castle Mountains

Castle Mountains. Photo: George Wuerthner.

The Castle Mountains are a pristine, island mountain range east of White Sulphur Springs, Montana that, despite the small size of the range, provides an important link in the wildlife corridor connecting Glacier and Yellowstone National Parks. The range gets its name from its “castle turrets,” which are 50-foot high igneous rock spires on the western slopes. The mountains are characterized by peaks over 8,000 feet in elevation and numerous grassy parks surrounded by Douglas fir, lodgepole, and limber pine forests.

However, a massive deforestation project, approved by the Forest Service during the Trump Administration, calls for cutting and burning trees on 22,500 acres — including in the Castle Mountains Inventoried Roadless Area.  The project would also bulldoze in 45.1 miles of roads including 9.7 miles of new “temporary” roads, 25.7 miles of “re-constructed” roads, and 9.7 miles of new roads on existing trails.

The Alliance for the Wild Rockies and Natives Ecosystems Council recently filed a lawsuit in federal court to stop this falsely-named Castle Mountains “Restoration” Project in the Lewis and Clark National Forest. 

The huge 35-square mile project includes:
 * 1,144 acres of commercial logging in Douglas fir forest, which will remove 40-60% of the trees, and is referred to euphemistically in the Project Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) as “thinning,”
* 1,155 acres of clearcutting of lodgepole pine forest, referred to as “regeneration,”
 * 928 acres of modified clearcutting with whitebark pine as the “leave trees,” potentially includes burning, referred to as “whitebark pine restoration,”
* 1,799 acres of modified clearcutting, which will remove trees around designated “leave trees,” and is referred to as “stand improvement thinning,”
* 419 acres of pre-commercial logging, referred to as “pre-commercial thinning,”
* 287 acres of commercial and non-commercial logging of all conifer trees in aspen groves, and potentially including post-logging burning, referred to as “aspen restoration,”
* 8,778 acres of clearcutting and possible burning to create “meadows,” referred to as “meadow restoration,”
* 8,063 acres of prescribed burning, and
*7 acres of shrub planting.

Elk Habitat

The road density is so high in this area — over 3 miles/square mile — that it already violates the road density limits for elk mandated in the Forest Plan.   Yet there are 45 miles of new or reconstructed logging roads proposed for the project.  The Forest Service claims these temporary roads can be excluded from “habitat effectiveness” analysis, but the best available science says the exact opposite.

Old Growth Forests

The project would log hundreds of acres of old growth forest and thousands of acres of mature forest.  But once again, Trump’s Forest Service refused to conduct the old growth analysis required by the agency’s own rules — the Forest Plan itself.  In fact, the agency ignored the very definition for old growth forest required by the Forest Plan. The Forest Service’s failure to use the Forest Plan definition of old-growth renders it impossible to determine if this huge logging project meets old-growth retention requirements for this area.

Additionally, although the Forest Plan lists goshawk as an “old-growth forest management indicator species” for this area, and requires 100% of goshawk nests to be monitored annually, the last survey found a 47% decline in active goshawk nests.  The Forest Service refused to disclose this fact to the public in the project EIS.  The agency also violated the Forest Plan requirement to conduct an evaluation report if active nests decline by 10% in a year.

White Sulphur Springs Municipal Watershed

Some of the logging and roadbuilding could also be in White Sulphur Springs municipal watershed.  The Forest Plan requires that Montana’s Department of Environmental Quality “must approve road construction, timber harvest, and mining activities in municipal watersheds” – which has not been done.  The Forest Plan also mandates that in municipal watersheds “roads will not be constructed for surface resource management” and “timber should only be harvested where necessary to control a hazard to the water resources.”  The Forest Service never disclosed and addressed these three requirements in the public analysis, in violation of both the National Environmental Policy Act and the National Forest Management Act.

Whitebark Pine

Whitebark pine is a high elevation keystone and foundation species, which protects watersheds by shading snowpack and slowing snowmelt, thereby keeping water in streams late into the summer.  But due to decimation from mountain pine beetle infestations and invasive white-pine blister rust, whitebark pine is now “proposed” for listing and protection under the Endangered Species Act.  Protection for “proposed species” is legally mandated, but this project includes hundreds of acres of clearcutting and burning up to 30 feet from individual whitebark pine “leave” trees.  In the project analysis, the Forest Service refused to disclose that its own ten-year study — RMRS-GTR-232 — finds that this practice of slashing and burning has an incredibly high failure rate as a technique for natural regeneration of whitebark pine.

Inventoried Roadless Area

In violation of the Roadless Rule, the project will log almost 3,000 acres in the Castle Mountains Inventoried Roadless Area that would be designated as Wilderness by the Northern Rockies Ecosystems Protection Act, which will be reintroduced in U.S. House of Representatives and the Senate this month.

This enormous logging and burning project is rife with significant legal violations, yet it was approved by Trump’s Forest Service.  We will not allow the government to flagrantly violate its own laws and destroy thousands of acres of our public forest lands in the process.  We are exercising our First Amendment rights under the U.S. Constitution and taking the Forest Service to court.  If normal citizens have to follow the law, so does the government.

Mike Garrity is the executive director of the Alliance for the Wild Rockies.