HELENA, Mont. (AP) — A mixed ruling by a federal judge has all sides claiming victory in a proposed Lolo National Forest logging project whose collaborative approach toward forest management has pitted conservation groups against each other.
U.S. District Judge Donald Molloy ruled Wednesday that the U.S. Forest Service's 2,038-acre Colt Summit Project near Seeley Lake passes muster except in one area: the agency did not adequately analyze the project's cumulative effects on lynx habitat. The judge sent that portion of the proposal back to the Forest Service for further consideration.
The project has received federal funding as part of the 1.5-million-acre Southwestern Crown of the Continent restoration project. The plan includes a combination of logging and burning timber, decommissioning roads or converting them to trails and treating noxious weeds. Its planning involved people and groups that have a stake in the forest, including governments, conservationists, industry and communities.
Four conservation groups — Friends of the Wild Swan, the Alliance for the Wild Rockies, Montana Ecosystems Defense Council and Native Ecosystems Council — are suing to stop the project, saying it would harm lynx, bear and trout habitat.
But in a break from similar lawsuits in the past, other conservationists such as The Wilderness Society and the Montana Wilderness Association are backing the Forest Service, saying the Colt Summit Project is part of an ideological shift toward collaborative management meant to end a rancorous stalemate that has prevented wilderness or restoration projects from moving forward.
Molloy, in his one-paragraph ruling, knocked down most of the plaintiffs' claims and said the Forest Service properly studied the project's effects on lynx and grizzly bears. The exception was the claim that the Colt Summit Project analysis violated the National Environmental Policy Act by not studying the cumulative effects of the project on lynx, a threatened species.
The ruling, which will be followed by a full order, does not expressly block the project, but Alliance for the Wild Rockies Executive Director Michael Garrity said that is the effect.
"There's never been an example of where the Forest Service has been found to violate NEPA where they've been allowed to go ahead with their timber sale," Garrity said.
Lolo National Forest Supervisor Debbie Austin said the one-paragraph order does not address the status of the project, so both sides must wait for the full order to determine the effect of Molloy's ruling. But Austin declared it a win for the project, saying the judge ruled with the Forest Service on most of the claims brought against it.
"We won on 11 of the 12 counts, and most importantly, we did show that we provided adequate analysis and are providing adequate protections for lynx, grizzly bears and bull trout," Austin said. "We're just waiting for the full opinion and we're looking forward to strengthening the cumulative effects analysis and moving forward."
The Wilderness Society also called the ruling a victory for the project because Molloy upheld "their most significant argument," that the project would not harm lynx, grizzly bears and bull trout.
Assessing the long-term cumulative effects on lynx habitat won't present a major obstacle because the judge has already agreed the project won't harm lynx, the organization said.
Garrity said that when the Colt Summit Project is put into the context of other logging projects on private land and in the neighboring Flathead National Forest, there is a real threat to lynx habitat.
"I don't think that's something they can paper over," Garrity said. "It's a real issue."
Austin said contracts for part of the project that are not being contested, such as roadwork and culvert repairs, already have been awarded and work could begin as early as July 1. A contract for the logging portion of the project has not yet been awarded, and advertising the timber sale has been pushed back to later in the summer because of other priorities, she said.
But the important thing, Austin said, is that the judge's ruling is a good sign of the strength of the collaborative process and the Forest Service will be working to develop more projects using that method.
"The design and development is much better and I think that is shown in the judge's decision," she said.