(CN) – The U.S. Forest Service must once again revise its plan to allow logging and controlled burning in Montana’s Gallatin National Forest to ensure the project doesn’t remove too much tree cover for elk, the 9th Circuit ruled.
The Native Ecosystems Council and the Alliance for the Wild Rockies challenged the agency’s plan to authorize logging on up to 810 acres and prescribe burning on an additional 300 acres to reduce the risk of wildfire, insect infestation and disease among the area’s lodgepole pine, Douglas fir, aspen, spruce and sub-alpine fir. The proposal was also meant to promote habitat diversity.
The proposed logging is designed to break up the vertical and horizontal continuity of vegetation in order to reduce the chance of crown fires, or fires that climb to and spread through the tops of trees.
In some areas, logging would remove conifers near aspen trees in order to promote the growth of aspen groves. In other areas, logging would thin trees so that they are spaced 20 to 50 feet apart. The thinning would leave about 300 to 500 irregularly spaced trees per acre. Current tree densities range up to 3,000 per acre.
A federal judge said the Forest Service could begin logging once it finished mapping elk habitat, as required by the Gallatin Forest Plan. After doing so, the agency re-approved the project, prompting a second legal challenge, which the judge dismissed.
On appeal, a three-judge panel in Seattle backed the lower court’s ruling for the Forest Service on all but one claim. Judge William Fletcher said the revised plan properly calculated the risk reduction for wildfires and insect disease, adequately discussed the project’s impact on global warming and soil quality, and sufficiently monitored the plan’s effects on area wildlife, including Yellowstone cutthroat trout.
But the panel said the revised plan failed to address how the project would impact elk cover, or forested areas where elk can hide.
In their second lawsuit, the plaintiffs had argued that logging and controlled burning would reduce the two-thirds elk cover required by the forest’s management plan.
“We agree,” Fletcher wrote.
“We affirm the district court’s grant of summary judgment to the Service in almost all respects,” he added. “We remand, however, because the Project fails to comply with the Gallatin Plan’s elk-cover requirements.”