Judge Rejects Environmentalists’ Open-Meetings Lawsuit

Judge has rejected three environmental groups' claims that governor violated state's open-meeting law

By Associated Press

MISSOULA – A Helena judge has rejected three environmental groups’ claims that Gov. Steve Bullock violated the state’s open-meeting laws by holding discussions before nominating 5.1 million acres of forest land for priority federal management.

Last year, Bullock nominated land in the Lolo, Bitterroot, Flathead, Helena-Lewis and Clark, Kootenai, Beaverhead-Deerlodge and Custer-Gallatin national forests for more intensive management through logging and measures to improve forest health.

The process was authorized by Congress to treat insect infestations and disease.

The lawsuit by WildWest Institute, Conservation Congress and Friends of the Bitterroot objected to the committee of conservationists, state officials and timber industry representatives that advised the governor on which lands to nominate.

No notice was given of the committee’s meetings and no minutes were recorded, the lawsuit said.

District Judge Kathy Seeley agreed with Bullock’s argument that he had the sole discretion in responding to the U.S. Forest Service’s request to nominate land. From there, the process was managed at the federal level, ending the state’s involvement in the one-time request, Seeley said in her June 15 ruling.

“There is simply no future window of opportunity for further recommendations, or a method for recalling or revising ones already made and acted upon by the Secretary of Agriculture,” Seeley wrote.

WildWest Institute director Matthew Koehler told the Missoulian the judge’s ruling allows government officials to make decisions in secret.

“The governor, with no notice to anyone in Montana, and no opportunity for Montana citizens to participate or share their views, nominated 5 million acres for fast-track logging that’s categorically excluded from the requirements of NEPA (National Environmental Policy Act),” Koehler said Wednesday

Bullock spokesman Mike Wessler said the governor makes it a priority to hear from constituents and stakeholders in the decision he makes.

“He will also continue to reach out to folks with knowledge and expertise on topics before him to ensure he’s making a decision that is in the best interest of Montanans, our state and our economy,” Wessler said.