Federal Court Rules Soldier-Butler Logging is Illegal, Halts Massive Logging and Road-Building Project in Ninemile Valley

Photo: George Wuerthner.

Approving a magistrate judge’s recommendations, on October 5th the Montana federal district court ruled for the Alliance for the Wild Rockies and the Flathead-Lolo-Bitterroot Citizen Task Force in their lawsuits opposing the Soldier-Butler timber sale. The court ruled that the Forest Service failed to comply with its own self-imposed rules to protect elk winter range and habitat for snag-dependent species. The court also found that the Forest Service did not ensure that grizzly bears will not be harmed by the project’s road construction plans.

The Soldier-Butler Project, located about 30 miles northwest of Missoula, Montana, called for logging and/or burning on 9,975 acres, including 114 acres of clear-cuts, The logging plans called for building at least 7 miles of new roads and adding and reconstructing over 37 miles of “undetermined roads” to the National Forest road system.

This was another enormous “landscape-scale” logging and road-building project that encompassed more than 70 square miles and added well over 44 miles of new roads to this already highly-roaded landscape. And let’s be clear here. What the Forest Service calls “undetermined roads” are often illegal, user-created roads that the agency is now legitimizing by including these roads in its official road system. This only incentivizes yet more illegal and unplanned user-created roads, which are highly detrimental to grizzly bears and elk habitat security. This is exactly the opposite of what the Forest Service should be doing to protect our public lands and national forests.

In addition, many of the “undetermined roads” on the landscape have turned out to be roads that the Forest Service promised in the past to obliterate but never did. The Soldier-Butler Project area overlaps with another huge timber sale, the Frenchtown Face Ecosystem Restoration Project, which the Forest Service approved in 2006. The Frenchtown Face Project authorized decommissioning 115 miles of roads, 85 of which overlap with the Soldier-Butler project. We dropped our appeal of the Frenchtown Face Project because the Forest Service promised it would obliterate these roads, which would have been beneficial to grizzly bears and elk. Instead, as disclosed in the Soldier-Butler Project’s Environmental Assessment, even though the agency promised in writing it would obliterate these roads, only 15 of 85 miles of roads in the overlap area have been removed. The agency went back on its word and grizzly bears and elk paid the price with less secure habitat.

Adding taxpayer insult to environmental injury, the Forest Service estimates that it will lose $5,122,000 on the Soldier-Butler Project. That’s more than five million federal taxpayer dollars recklessly spent to subsidize the timber industry while seriously damaging our dwindling intact national forests that provide badly needed carbon sinks to combat global warming. Our forests also provide critical habitat for the native fish and wildlife for which Montana is world-famous. And it’s worth noting that the agency wanted to do this so private timber corporations could profit off public resources.

It’s unfortunate that apparently, the only way we can get the Forest Service to follow the law is to sue it. We hope that Congress will finally take note of serial law-breaking by the Forest Service and take action. Instead of repeatedly blaming “environmental activists” for making the Forest Service follow the law, our politicians need to ensure that the agency breaks this pattern of developing illegal projects.

If you can afford it, please consider helping us fight crimes against nature.

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