Forest Service Withdraws Its Appeal for Massive Logging and Road-building Project in Grizzly Bear Habitat

Photo: Glen Phillips.

It’s hard to imagine the damage an enormous timber sale would have had on 70 square miles of Montana’s Ninemile Valley, located about seven miles northwest of Huson, in the Lolo National Forest. But thanks to our lawsuit and two federal court rulings in our favor, the forests, rivers, and wildlife in the Soldier-Butler project area will be spared the environmental degradation.

On March 21st, The Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals dismissed the Forest Service’s appeal, at their request, which sought to overturn a Montana federal district court’s decision holding that the Forest Service violated multiple laws—as well as its own Forest Plan—in approving the 45,160-acre Soldier-Butler timber sale.

The Alliance for the Wild Rockies and the Lolo Bitterroot Task Force opposed the ‘landscape scale’ logging and road-building project that called for building at least 7 miles of new roads and reconstructing over 37 miles of illegally-built roads, which the agency then planned to add as legitimate roads on this already highly-roaded landscape. The project called for logging and/or burning on 9,975 acres, including 114 acres of clearcuts, extending from the East Fork of Burnt Fork Creek southwest to Butler Creek and from the Ninemile Road No. 412 to the Reservation Divide.

We are thrilled that this case is now over and hope that the Forest Service will direct its attention to removing the many miles of illegal roads already in the area, as it first promised it would do over 16 years ago after the Frenchtown Face project, but never did.

Last fall, the District Court ruled that the Forest Service failed to comply with its own self-imposed rules to protect elk winter range as well as habitat for snag-dependent species. The District Court concluded that the Forest Service violated the National Forest Management Act by not complying with the Forest Plan’s minimum of 50:50 coverage-to-forage ratio standards for elk.

The Court stated in its Order: “Indeed, the Court notes that even if it could merely take Defendants at their word, doing so would be difficult in this case. Defendants have repeatedly argued to this Court that they need not comply with the Forest Plan’s 50:50 coverage-to-forage ratio standard at all because it is simply one of several competing goals contained within the plan. Because Defendants have devoted so much argument to this point, the Court struggles to accept their self-serving statements that even if it were binding (which it is), steps have been taken to ensure it is met.”

The Court also found that the Forest Service failed to ensure that grizzly bears will not be harmed by the Project’s road construction and use. One of the significant problems with the Soldier-Butler Project was that it overlapped with another huge timber sale, the Frenchtown Face Ecosystem Restoration Project, approved by the Forest Service in 2006. That project authorized decommissioning 115 miles of roads, so the Alliance dropped its administrative appeal because removing those roads would have been extremely beneficial to grizzly bears and elk.

But even though the agency promised in writing that it would obliterate 85 miles of roads in the overlapping Soldier-Butler area, only 15 miles of roads have been removed by the Forest Service. Grizzly bears and elk have paid the price for that broken promise with less secure habitat while sediment from the illegal roads continues to pollute vital bull trout spawning streams.

Ironically, had the Forest Service kept its promise and removed the 44 miles of illegal roads in the area, it would have had a much easier time complying with the road density and elk cover standards in the Forest Plan. Considering the Forest Service estimated that it would have lost $5,122,000 on the Soldier-Butler project, it only makes sense that the agency should now use those federal taxpayer funds to remove the illegal roads in the Ninemile Valley that it promised to remove in 2006.

It’s unfortunate that the only way to address the serial law-breaking by the Forest Service is to take the agency to court. Our politicians repeatedly blame ‘environmental activists’ for making the Forest Service follow the law, but in truth, it’s the job of lawmakers and the administration to ensure that this massive federal agency stops its pattern of illegality and deforestation.

Rest assured, we will continue to force the Forest Service to follow the law and maintain and restore the functioning ecosystems of the Northern Rockies. Taking the federal government to court is expensive, however, and we would appreciate it greatly if you want to help in that never-ending effort.

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