Massive “Pintler Face” logging and Burning Project on Beaverhead-Deerlodge National Forest Challenged in Federal Court

Canada lynx. Photo: Lisa Hupp, US Fish and Wildlife Service.

It’s absolutely one of the worst places in the Rockies for clearcuts. For the Forest Service to propose a project like this in essential habitat for lynx, grizzly bear, and wolverine — which are all listed under the Endangered Species Act — simply makes no sense. Consequently, we’re left with no choice but to take the federal government to court and halt this clearcutting, burning, and bulldozing disaster.

Three conservation groups, Alliance for the Wild Rockies, Yellowstone to Uintas Connection and Native Ecosystems Council, filed suit to halt the Pintler Face Project on February 16th in Federal District Court in Missoula, Monte.

The project area is enormous. At 73,624 acres — 115 square miles — it will basically deforest the south face of the Anaconda-Pintler Range, which is bordered by the Anaconda-Pintler Wilderness Area.

Located about 10 miles northwest of Wise River, Montana, the project calls for bulldozing in 11.1 miles of new logging roads for 3,459 acres of clearcuts, intentional burning and logging 564 acres of aspen, 5,793 acres of commercial logging, and 1,532 acres of pre-commercial logging. Then add in burning 1,532 acres of Douglas fir understory and burning or cutting another 5,669 acres.

In a rather Orwellian ploy, the Forest Service tried to get around the legal requirements for protecting habitat for lynx by secretly eliminating 1.1 million acres of mapped lynx habitat on the Beaverhead-Deerlodge National Forest. That included eliminating lynx habitat from the project area to enable the logging, burning and bulldozing. Then the agency acted like that habitat designation never existed and did so without any public process or environmental effects analysis, which is illegal under the National Environmental Policy Act.

A federal district court ruled for us on this issue in Idaho many years ago, and again last year when the Custer-Gallatin National Forest did the exact same thing with the Great Red Lodge Area logging project, so it’s not like the agency doesn’t know excluding the public and removing critical habitat designations is illegal.

The Forest Service again violated the National Environmental Policy Act by unlawfully tying the project’s Environmental Assessment and Decision Notice to its 2020 remapping/removal of lynx habitat. But the law is clear that the Forest Service can only do so for documents that the public has had the opportunity for review and comment in an official EIS — not on a secret document that the Forest Service kept from the public.

The grizzly bear analysis for the project also violates the law:  the Biological Opinion, which was done by the US Fish and Wildlife Service, failed to use the best available science, and fails to adequately address the environmental baseline as well as the direct, indirect, and cumulative effects on grizzly bears — all of which are required by law.

Although the agencies conclude that the project is likely to adversely affect grizzly bears, the Biological Opinion was severely deficient and failed to provide any meaningful analysis of the cumulative effects on grizzlies. Given the project is expected to take 5-10 years to implement, it’s unbelievable these two federal agencies ignored the potential effects on grizzly bears in violation of the Endangered Species Act.

Not only did the agencies ignore the cumulative effects on grizzly bears from roads and logging activities on nearby state and private lands, but they also ignored the impacts from 145 miles of illegally created and unauthorized routes in the project area.

We won a court decision stopping the Ripley logging project in the Kootenai National Forest last year on this same issue. These are established legal precedents and given the enormous size of this project, the Forest Service also violated the National Environmental Policy Act by failing to prepare a full Environmental Impact Statement.

The public is getting tired of the serial law-breakers at the Forest Service, and the Biden administration should know better. It’s ridiculous that we should continually have to challenge — and stop — the agency’s illegal, poorly designed, and insufficiently analyzed projects in court. None of this would be necessary if the agency just did its job, paid attention to the court decisions they’ve lost over and over again, and started following the law instead of continually trying to evade the law to continue massive deforestation.

Since Congress refuses to make the Forest Service follow the law, please consider donating to the Alliance for the Wild Rockies to help us make the Forest Service follow the law.

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