Friday, July 19, 2024

Federal judge halts logging project near White Sulphur Springs

| July 9, 2024 7:00 AM

A federal court judge in Montana has halted a logging project near White Sulphur Springs in the Helena-Lewis and Clark National Forest after he said the U.S. Forest Service failed to take into account a decline in nesting goshawks, which violated federal law.

The Alliance for the Wild Rockies and Native Ecosystems Council successfully argued before federal magistrate Kathleen L. DeSoto that both the U.S. Forest Service and the United States Fish and Wildlife Service hadn’t properly considered the species, which are considered an essential indicator of old-growth forests.

The defendants in the case, the federal agencies as well as the American Forest Research Council, a group aligned with the logging industry, had objected to DeSoto’s findings, which were later affirmed by Judge Dana L. Christensen, who issued the final order.

The Horsefly Project, as it’s called, consists of 20,600 acres located in the Little Belt Mountains, 12 miles north of White Sulphur Springs. The project was scheduled to take just a little more than 20 years, and includes harvesting, thinning, prescribed burning as well as aspen and meadow restoration.

DeSoto found that the Forest Service’s lack of monitoring the goshawk population violated the National Forest Management Act as well as the National Environmental Protection Act. The Forest Service said that the Horsefly Project would not affect the goshawk nesting territories, but DeSoto found officials had data showing the population was declining and that the project would likely harm the species. It had failed to include that information in its assessment.

Federal law requires the Forest Service to monitor nesting territories for the goshawk on an annual basis because they are a “management indicator species” for old-growth forests. Furthermore, if the goshawk population falls by more than 10%, it would indicate more research and study is needed.

The Horsefly project called for logging more than 5,000 acres of goshawk nesting habitat and burning 2,300 acres of goshawk habitat.

However, records obtained by the environmental groups show that active goshawk nests in the area dropped from 38 in 2016 to eight in 2019, but that “was not disclosed to the public,” the court found.

Both DeSoto and Christensen found that the Forest Service not only failed to disclose the fact to the public, but then did not consider it in the project analysis, which violated federal laws.

Christensen affirmed DeSoto’s decision to enjoin, or stop, the project and send it back to the Forest Service with the instructions to evaluate the project with goshawk data included, which could limit the scope of the logging project or stop it altogether.

“The project must be remanded so that the Forest Service can cure the NEPA violation through a supplemental environmental assessment or an environmental impact statement,” Christensen said in his order released on Thursday.

The coalition of groups raising the issues with the court also had other concerns, including questioning whether the logging project interfered with endangered grizzly bears or created too many roads, which would disturb the elk population.

However, the court dismissed those parts of the case, ruling that the Forest Service had properly considered road closures, road building and road “obliteration” after the project. The court also found that the Fish and Wildlife Service concluded that “it is extremely unlikely that a grizzly bear would be in the action area, and even less likely to be in the smaller project implementation area.”

“We follow the law every day, and the Forest Service must also follow the law. When a government agency violates the law, it must be held accountable in court. It’s not easy to fight the federal government, which has far more resources than we do, but nonetheless we are committed to making the government follow its own laws to protect our native wildlife and public land ecosystems,” said Michael Garrity of the Alliance for the Wild Rockies, which was one of two groups challenging the federal government. “Despite attacks by politicians, intimidation tactics, and misinformation campaigns, we will continue with this critical work.”