Montana: 9th circuit rules against enviros logging challenge on Helena NF

In a decision issued Tuesday, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals
affirmed the Helena forest’s 2003 plan to undertake commercial
thinning and other efforts to remove small trees and vegetation on
about 1,500 acres. However, Helena District Ranger Duane Harp said the
prescription is only good now for about 100 acres containing Douglas
fir trees, since about 90 percent of the trees on the remaining 1,400
acres — mainly lodgepole pines — are now dead. “We are obviously
extremely pleased that the Ninth Circuit has found in our favor.

But it’s bittersweet news because with the current beetle epidemic, the
vast majority of the project area, which was proposed for timber
harvest, is now dead,” Harp said. “You can’t use the prescription for
green trees on dead trees. “So I guess we’ve implemented the no-action
alternative.” Mike Garrity, executive director of the Alliance of the
Wild Rockies, said that if the Helena forest had worked with his
organization and the two others that began appealing the lawsuit in
2004 — Native Ecosystems Council and the Wildwest Institute — that
some compromise might have been reached to allow the project to move
forward. He said the groups did agree with the forest that some
thinning should be done on forest lands near homes while the lawsuit
was under way, and that his group has worked with the Helena forest
and others in the past to craft projects that wouldn’t be litigated.

“Our main focus was that the forest’s own five-year review of its
forest plan showed that it was failing to ensure the viability of
species,” Garrity said. “The forest service never disclosed that
report to public, as originally planned, and has never addressed that
concern even though it continues to implement the same flawed forest
plan.” He added that the appeals court’s decision wasn’t “published,”
meaning it can’t be used as precedent, and that they disagree with the
findings of the three-member judicial panel that issued the ruling.
Garrity said they’re considering whether to ask for an opinion
involving more of the appeals court’s judges. Planning for what became
known as the Clancy/Unionville Project began in 1997, because the
forest service and some of the neighbors in the area thought this
might reduce the threat of large-scale catastrophic wildfire. Harp
said he also hoped thinning the forest here would also create a
habitat less conducive to mountain pine beetles.

A final Environmental
Impact Statement and Record of Decision for the project was issued in
2000, but was successfully appealed and sent back to then-forest
Supervisor Tom Clifford by the regional forester. Additional analysis
was conducted and a new decision issued in February 2003. It’s that
decision that’s been in litigation until this week’s Ninth Circuit
Court ruling. Garrity and others have long disputed that logging is
good for reducing the threat of wildfire forestwide; they’d rather see
it implemented only near homes for that purpose. They also argue that
it’s impossible for the forest to “log its way out of the beetle

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