MISSOULA, Mont. (CN) – The U.S. Forest Service did its due diligence before deciding to cut down trees killed by insect infestation in a Montana national forest, a federal judge ruled.
The Native Ecosystems Council and Alliance for the Wild Rockies sued the Forest Service in September 2014 under the National Environmental Policy Act, National Forest Management Act and the Administrative Procedures Act.
They challenged the Forest Service’s Environmental Assessment, Decision of Notice and Finding of No Significant Impact for the South Bridger Interface Project in the Gallatin National Forest, about 15 miles northeast of Bozeman. The 250-acre commercial thinning project is immediately south of the nonprofit Bridger Bowl Ski Area, named for mountain man Jim Bridger.
The Forest Service describes the acreage at issue as dense, “mature and over-mature” stands of Douglas fir and lodgepole pine that have suffered “epidemic” levels of mortality from western spruce bud-worm and mountain pine beetle infestations.
The Forest Service says the only way to revive the area is through thinning, but the environmental groups say the agency failed to take a close enough look at the cumulative effects of past timber sales.
U.S. District Judge Dana Christensen ruled on July 30 that the plaintiffs failed to show how past timber sales are relevant.
“Plaintiffs make no compelling argument why these fairly dated and relatively small past timber harvests needed to be further detailed in order for the Forest Service to adequately assess these past timber harvests’ relationship to the project or otherwise comply with NEPA,” Christensen wrote.
“The EA [environmental assessment] established that ‘defoliators and bark beetles have been the most significant recent disturbance agent within the analysis area,’ and ‘fire, insects and disease have been the most influential historic disturbances within the analysis area.’ Thus, that the EA provided a somewhat truncated and arguably generalized description of past timber harvest projects was not arbitrary or capricious.”
The groups claimed that pine marten habitat would be compromised, but the Forest Service erroneously relied on the “Thompson” study to conclude that without thinning, the area would see heavy fuel buildup, creating risk of fire that would make the area unsuitable for the long, slender-bodied species of weasel for at least 40 years.
Christensen rejected the claim.
“Plaintiffs contend that the Thompson study is concerned only with forest regeneration after clear-cut logging, rather than wildfire,” the judge wrote. “However, while the Thompson study is specifically focused on forest regeneration after clear-cut logging, it is more generally concerned with pine marten success in ‘regenerating habitats.’ The Thompson study also concludes that pine marten density declines are similar when habitat is lost through ‘wildfire or forest management.”
The judge added: “The Forest Service appropriately relied on the Thompson study for the conclusion that a stand-initiation stage forest in the project area, resulting from wildfire, would create unsuitable habitat for pine marten for many years.”
Christensen also rejected the plaintiffs’ claims that the Forest Service violated its own forest plan about big-game cover and forage needs.
He found that “the plaintiffs ignore the Forest Service’s determination that implementing the project, as opposed to the no -action alternative, will help maintain higher levels of hiding cover in the project area over time, as no action would likely result in greater tree mortality from continued insect infestation.”
Spokesmen for the Native Ecosystems Council and the Alliance for the Wild Rockies were not available for comment over the weekend.
The Forest Service could not be reached for comment.
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