Montana Forest-Cutting Project Evades Challenge

     (CN) – The 9th Circuit on Friday refused to interfere with a project to reduce vegetation in a Montana forest that has not seen a wildfire in more than 100 years.
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     Federal officials say that land in the Lewis and Clark National Forest has become overgrown and choked with potential fuel for a catastrophic wildfire, threatening the Middle Fork Judith Wilderness Study Area (WSA) and nearby Sapphire Village.
     The Forest Service decided in 2009 that reduced vegetation would “restore the project area to its historical natural stand composition – a more open understory maintained by more frequent, low intensity fires.”
     Sapphire Village is already classified by the Federal Register as a “high risk” spot with a history of crown fires.
     After the Native Ecosystems Council objected to the fuel-thinning plan, the agency reduced the size of the approximately 10-year project from 1,655 acres to 832 acres, and cut its thinning plan from 632 acres to 243 acres.
     Still, the group claimed that the project violated several federal environmental laws. In a federal complaint, opponents said that the Forest Service failed to study how the project could harm elk hiding cover and goshawk populations.
     U.S. District Judge Donald Molloy ruled for the Forest Service in Missoula, and a three-judge federal appeals panel affirmed Friday from Seattle.
     “We hold that the Forest Service took the requisite ‘hard look’ at the environmental impact of the project in the manner required by NEPA,” Judge Milan Smith wrote for the court, abbreviating the National Environmental Policy Act.
     He added that the agency also “reasonably considered the ‘relevant factors’ that could have impacted the elk hiding cover and goshawk populations in its analysis of the project.”

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