Certainty, jobs and hope through sustainable forestry
| May 5, 2023 7:00 AM
U.S. Forest Service leadership from the Chief's office in Washington D.C. to the Supervisor's office in Libby is working hard to restore the health of the 2.2 million-acre Kootenai National Forest.
Unfortunately three of the Kootenai's collaboratively developed restoration projects are now in litigation. Two of these, Knotty Pine and Ripley, are within earshot of downtown Libby, well within the Wildland Urban Interface [WUI].
Hundreds of homes, most of the town's businesses, all of Libby's schools and its only hospital.
The risks Libby faces are well known to the Forest Service, Montana's state and congressional delegations, Gov. Greg Gianforte, the Montana Department of Natural Resources and Conservation and Lincoln County's commissioners.
Serial litigators also know about the risks Libby faces, but they don't care. Nor do they care about the Kootenai National Forest, grizzly bears, bull trout or any of the other threatened or endangered species that have become litigation cash cows.
What they care about is the political power they enjoy and the money they earn via the Equal Access to Justice Act [EAJA] which was added by amendment to the Small Business Assistance Act on the floor of the U.S. Senate in 1980.
EAJA's stated purpose was to protect small businesses from federal regulatory overreach, but it came with a 1983 sunset clause because the Senate viewed the Act as an experiment.
Unfortunately, language limiting its authority to small business was removed from the final version, opening the door to environmental litigators who have found it to be a lucrative business model.
The current Kootenai litigators include the Center for Biological Diversity, the Alliance for the Wild Rockies, Wild Guardians, Native Ecosystems Council and the Yaak Valley Forest Council.
The lawyers representing these litigants are claiming from $500 to $700 per hour for their services.
Who pays their bills? You do.
What has the Kootenai National Forest done wrong for the last 30 years to attract such a swarm of highly paid lawyers?
Nothing. In fact, lawyers from the Department of Justice frequently win Kootenai cases at trial. But settlement can take years. Meanwhile, the wildfire/forest health risks increase.
The Kootenai staff is using every tool Congress provides for speeding the forest restoration process, but the ever changing and politically vulnerable regulatory maze is nearly impossible to navigate without getting sued.
The Kootenai is one of the 10 national forests recently selected to receive additional wildfire/community development/forest restoration funding.
But success turns on regulatory certainty. Certainty being a stable, long term supply of wood fiber necessary to justify investing $100 million in a new small-log wood processing mill in Libby.
Serial litigators know that the easiest way to prevent a mill from being built is to continue to litigate forest restoration projects. The fact that their actions endanger Libby, its homes, businesses, families and forests does not matter to them.
Kootenai Supervisor Chad Benson has targeted about 10,000 acres per year inside the WUI. More is bundled within 40-some restoration projects that will generate millions of tons of biomass including small diameter logs, a fire resilient forest, and the certainty necessary to attract wood processing investments.
There are reasons to fear that more bad news lurks just around the corner, but I've been writing about forests and forestry for nearly 40 years and my gut tells me we are witnessing a long-awaited sea change.
There is bi-partisan recognition that litigation fosters management paralysis at great cost to rural communities throughout the West, none more so than Libby and the Kootenai National Forest.
I encourage you to voice your support for forest restoration to local, state and federal elected leaders. Ask them to find ways to limit the ability of serial litigators to sue your forests and communities to death.
The only question concerning the sea change you are witnessing is whether it will enrich Lincoln County’s forests and forest communities or serial litigators that don't give a damn about your forests or you.
Learn more about Kootenai forests and wildfire conditions at
https://www.evergreenmagazine.com/lincoln-county-counties-on-fire-report/ or stop by the Libby Chamber of Commerce and pick up a free copy of "Lincoln County, Montana: Counties on Fire!"
Jim Petersen: Founder and President of the non-profit Evergreen Foundation