Groups sue to protect forest ecosystem from logging in southern Montana | Courthouse News Service
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Groups sue to protect forest ecosystem from logging in southern Montana

A new U.S. Forest Service logging project in Montana will clearcut mature forests and harm threatened lynx and grizzly bears, conservationists say.

(CN) — Conservationists joined forces in Montana on Wednesday in challenging a U.S. Forest Service logging project within the Custer-Gallatin National Forest outside Yellowstone National Park, a project they claim would imperil habitat for federally protected wildlife species.

Known as the “South Plateau Landscape Area Treatment Project,” the Forest Service’s latest timber endeavor involves over 5,500 acres of pine forest in Montana’s portion of the Greater Yellowstone ecosystem — a region comprised of old-growth trees that sequester carbon and provide habitat to several wildlife species, including threatened Canada lynx and grizzly bears.

The project also calls for another 9,000 acres in addition to bulldozing up to 56 miles of roads, according to the Center of Biological Diversity, which joined the Alliance for the Wild Rockies and Council on Wildlife and Fish in suing the service in federal court for approving the project in August with a finding of no significant impact.

“The South Plateau Project will clearcut mature forest, destroy and fragment habitat, displace wildlife, alter hydrology and adversely affect grizzly bears and lynx in an area that directly borders the western boundary of Yellowstone National Park,” the groups say in the complaint, adding that the project’s plan to remove over 83 million board-feet of commercial timber is “significantly more than allowed under the Custer Gallatin National Forest Plan.”

Outside of the service’s finding of no significant impact, the center says the agency approved the logging project without specifying locations, timing or scope of the logging units or roads, all of which the service said it would decide when the project is implemented and without further opportunity for public comment.

Within the service’s environmental assessment, it concluded that — in the absence of significant impacts — it would not require an environmental impact assessment under the National Environmental Policy Act.

“The Forest Service also failed to take a ‘hard look’ at the carbon and climate impacts of removing hundreds of thousands of trees from the forest,” the groups say in the complaint. “The Forest Service dismissed the impacts of logging these mature forests as ‘infinitesimal,’ ignoring years of science and agency guidance, and failed to address the climate pollution caused by cutting, hauling and processing timber.”

Service national press officer John Winn said the agency cannot comment on pending litigation, though he did note that it is important to remember why the South Plateau Project is needed.

As noted within the service’s final decision notice and finding of no significant impact, the project is not just about contributing a sustained yield of timber products. It is also intended to increase landscape resiliency to insects and disease and treat hazardous fuels near the community to prevent wildlife.

“The project also includes access changes on forest system roads designed to improve water quality and riparian zone integrity and improve the condition of grizzly bear secure habitat in deficient bear management subunits,” Winn added, which is also outlined in the service’s finding.

Should the groups prevail on their claims, they will join other recent court wins that stalled state logging projects to protect threatened grizzlies. In August, for example, a federal judge in Montana blocked the service’s “Black Ram Project” within the Kootenai National Forest, finding that the agency made a series of errors in authorizing the project in 2022. The center also halted the service’s “Knotty Pine Project” in the Kootenai National Forest last spring, after a judge found that the project would likely harm grizzlies near the Montana-Canada border.

“This clearcutting project is a direct threat to grizzly bears, lynx and the entire Yellowstone ecosystem,” said center senior attorney Kristine Akland in a statement. “We know our continued existence relies in part on preserving our planet’s remaining forests and protecting threatened species. This project is completely out of step with both those urgent needs. We’re committed to stopping this devastating project before one tree is cut.”

Executive director for the Alliance, Mike Garrity, also released a statement on Wednesday, stating that the Greater Yellowstone ecosystem “is being bulldozed to death with logging roads and clearcuts.”

“It’s time to say no to destroying critical lynx, grizzly bear and whitebark pine habitat,” Garrity said. “We need to be protecting the old-growth forests that sequester carbon instead of clearcutting them.”

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