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Group files lawsuit vs. KNF projects

| February 21, 2006 11:00 PM

A Missoula environmental group has filed a lawsuit seeking to halt nine logging projects in the Kootenai National Forest approved since June 2004 and involving 90 million board-feet.

Citing past and continuing failures to manage the forest in accordance with the Kootenai's own forest plan in regards to old-growth forests, old-growth dependent wildlife species, water quality, fish habitat and soil productivity, the Ecology Center has filed the comprehensive lawsuit against the Forest Service in U.S. District Court in Missoula.

"We want to put an end to a pattern of abuse on the Kootenai National Forest that has resulted in decades of unsustainable logging practices that have harmed clean water, fish habitat, old-growth forests and old-growth dependent wildlife species," said Jeff Juel, executive director of the Ecology Center. "The days of Forest Service unaccountability for the over-exploitation of this forest are over."

Specifically, the lawsuit challenges nine logging projects that would:

* Cut approximately 90 million board feet of trees from19,000 acres of forestland;

* Log over 3 square miles (2,062 acres) of effective old-growth habitat and log another 485 acres of replacement old-growth on the KNF;

* Adversely impact old-growth dependent species such as Canada lynx, pileated woodpecker, northern goshawk, fisher, pine marten and great grey owl on the KNF, as well as bull trout and westslope cutthroat trout.

The lawsuit says that over the past 15 years, KNF supervisors have made a total of 67 amendments to the Kootenai's forest plan for one reason: to facilitate

industrial logging and roadbuilding projects that would not have been allowed under the 1987 KNF Forest Plan.

The nine logging projects challenged in the current lawsuit follow a 2003 lawsuit by the Ecology Center that challenged the legality of five logging projects of 110 million board feet on the KNF. Those projects are Bristow Area Restoration Project, the Fortine Project, the West Troy Project, the Pipestone Timber Sale and Restoration Project, the Lower Big Creek Project, the South McSwede Timber Sale and Restoration Project, the Alder Creek Project, the Cow Creek Project, and the McSutten Project.

In June 2003, the U.S. District Court ruled that the Forest Service was not in compliance with the forest plan since it had not identified 10 percent of the KNF below 5,500 feet elevation as effective old growth and had not monitored the population trends of wildlife species that depend upon old-growth habitat for their existence. Essentially, the Forest Servoice had not prioritized the protection of old-growth habitat to ensure survival of these species, as required by law,

However, Montana Senator Conrad Burns intervened in November 2003 by attaching a rider - without public or congressional debate - to an unrelated appropriations bill that essentially instructed the U.S. District Court to allow the five logging projects to go forward regardless of the illegalities identified by the court.

The cumulative impacts from approximately 200 million board feet of logging challenged in both lawsuits have never been adequately disclosed or analyzed, said the Ecology Center in a widely distribute dnews release late last week.

"Put another way, the Forest Service has tried to cut down enough trees from the Kootenai National Forest to fill a convoy of 40,000 log trucks lined up end to end from Missoula to Billings without adequate environmental analysis of the impacts of this logging on approximately one fifth of all terrestrial species in the Kootenai National Forest that depend upon old growth habitat in whole or in part for their continuing viability," Juel said.

Also, the Ecology Center is saying the Forest Service never issued a 5-year Review and Evaluation Report as the National Forest Management Act requires.

"What the KNF did do is prepare internal documents labeled 'FOIA Exempt - Deliberative Process' which contain discussions that are a severe indictment of how the Forest Service has been managing the forest," Juel said.

The Ecology Center said that the report shows 398,600 acres of the KNF are in a condition that exceeds the desirable water yield limits. This is about 26 percent of the forest, which is beyond the 20 percent. A preliminary assessment of 750 watersheds covering about 2,706,000 acres of both public and private lands indicates that about 12 perecent of the watersheds (366,000 acres) are beyond the acceptable thresholds. Another 29 percent is at or close to the thresholds (786,000 acres).

However, Juel said, referring to on-going discussions that are taking place, "We remain committed to working with the Forest Service, Lincoln County officials and community leaders to find solutions that will put people in northwestern Montana to work restoring watersheds and protecting communities from wildfire through targeted fuel reduction of small trees and brush within the community protection zone.," stated Juel, referring to on-going discussions that are taking place. However, by ignoring the cumulative effectives of decades of unsustainable logging and road building, the Forest Service is jeopardizing any long-term relationship between the forest and the human economic communities that surround it."