Judge Dismisses South Fork Logging Lawsuit

The two timber projects in the South Fork have been the subject of scrutiny and litigation for over four years

By Dillon Tabish

A District Judge has dismissed a lawsuit conservation groups filed against the Flathead National Forest over logging projects in the South Fork Flathead River corridor.

U.S. District Judge Dana Christensen sided with a Magistrate Judge who ruled in favor of the U.S. Forest Service and approved a pair of timber management projects in the Spotted Bear Ranger District.

Friends of the Wild Swan and Swan View Coalition filed suit in 2012 in U.S. District Court in Missoula in opposition to the Forest Service’s Soldier Addition II Project on the west side of the South Fork near the Bob Marshall Wilderness Complex, and the Spotted Bear River Project, a logging proposal on the opposite side of the South Fork Flathead River.

The groups claimed the cumulative effects of the two logging projects would be harmful to imperiled fish and wildlife, including lynx and grizzly bears, and that the Forest Service failed to adequately analyze these impacts within the scope of the two projects. Their lawsuits claim violations of the National Environmental Policy Act, National Forest Management Act and Endangered Species Act.

Christensen, siding with U.S. Magistrate Judge Jeremiah Lynch, disagreed with the groups’ claims, saying the Forest Service adhered to the requirements for analysis.

Christensen handed down his decision Feb. 23.

The two timber projects have been the subject of scrutiny and litigation for over four years.

The Forest Service withdrew its initial decision regarding Soldier Addition II in 2010 in response to an appeal. It was reauthorized in late 2011.

The Soldier Addition II Project aims at harvesting 1,128 acres of timber “to improve long-term forest diversity and productivity, and to enhance the safety of visitors to recreation areas,” according to Forest Service documents.

The project also plans to thin 823 acres of saplings “to improve tree growth and encourage species diversity and forest resilience.” Additionally, the Forest Service proposed prescribed burning on 1,333 acres “to sustain the role of fire in the natural ecosystem and help restore whitebark pine habitat.”

Forest Service documents say the project would also reduce “hazardous fuels” on about 1 acre around the Stony Hill Electronic Site to “protect the site from damage by future wildland fire.”

The Soldier Addition II Project is similar in scope to the Spotted Bear River Project, harvesting 1,193 acres of trees, thinning 660 acres of saplings and burning 1,346 acres, according to Forest Service documents.

The Spotted Bear River Project is located between the Bob Marshall and Great Bear Wilderness areas.

A federal appeals court allowed the two logging and burning projects to move forward under litigation in 2014, rebuffing the environmental groups’ request for an injunction.

A 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals panel ruled the Forest Service did not act arbitrarily or capriciously in analyzing the projects’ combined effects on threatened lynx, grizzly bears and fisheries.

The three-judge panel denied two environmental groups’ request for an injunction, saying there was no immediate risk that would justify blocking the projects.

In their overall opposition to the projects, the environmental groups claimed the South Fork is a “congressionally protected wild and scenic river” that is home to “some of the most imperiled animals in the continental United States,” including lynx, wolverines, grizzly bears, gray wolves, fishers and bull trout.

The groups characterize both logging proposals as “aggressive.” They say the Soldier Addition II Project would further endanger wildlife by reopening 14.6 miles of road and constructing another 5.6 miles of temporary roads.

Illustration by Steve Larson | Flathead Beacon
Illustration by Steve Larson | Flathead Beacon

In their lawsuits, the conservation groups contended that the Forest Service failed to consider the cumulative effects on native trout from sediment deposits in the South Fork.

The Forest Service contended that any increase in sediment from the proposed management actions affects only a short segment of the South Fork before it enters Hungry Horse Reservoir, which creates a buffering effect. Forest officials also noted that this stretch of river does not contain bull trout or cutthroat trout spawning habitat. Also, the population of westslope cutthroat trout living in the South Fork is robust, according to the agency’s environmental assessment.

Both Lynch and Christensen agreed with the Forest Service in its fisheries analysis.

The conservation groups also objected to the Forest Service’s decision to consolidate units from each project into one timber sale, the Tin Mule sale, without analyzing the combined impact of the projects through an environmental impact statement.

The Forest Service prepared separate environmental assessments for each project addressing the cumulative effects within the areas, larger than those affected by the particular project, but limited to one side of the river, according to court documents.

“Plaintiffs have not demonstrated that the Forest Service acted arbitrarily in defining the geographic boundaries of its cumulative effects analysis,” Christensen wrote. “Therefore this Court agrees with Judge Lynch’s finding that the Defendants may administratively manage the two timber sale projects in a combined commercial timber sale, and that an EIS is not required.”

The court also upheld the finding that the Forest Service correctly determined that the fisher population in the project area is viable and that the agency’s methodology for determining horizontal cover was a means for addressing an existing Forest Plan standard. Also, Christensen said the Forest Service sufficiently explained the ESA “action area,” and that the court lacked the jurisdiction to hear arguments that the Forest Service violated the Salix decision, which sets consultation requirements under the ESA.