HELENA — Two federal appellate judges have blocked a Kootenai National Forest logging project two days before cutting was to begin.
The East Reservoir Project approved by the U.S. Forest Service calls for logging 8,845 acres of forest on the east side of Lake Koocanusa, approximately 15 miles east of Libby. The timber total — roughly 39 million board feet – represents more board feet than the Kootenai National Forest typically harvests in a year. The timber harvest in 2012 was 24 million board feet. During the logging heyday of the 1980s, however, the annual Kootenai timber harvest often topped 200 million board feet.
The Alliance for the Wild Rockies sued to stop the project, saying it could harm bull trout, grizzly bear and lynx habitat.
Calling it “one of the worst logging projects in decades,” Mike Garrity, executive director of the Alliance for the Wild Rockies, said the group went to federal court because the “massive clearcut and logging project” would affect tens of thousands of acres of national forest and five major tributaries to the Kootenai River and Lake Koocanusa.
“The East Reservoir Project area is huge,” Garrity stated. “But there are already over 22,000 acres of clearcuts within its boundaries. Add to that the 8,845 acres of proposed commercial logging, of which 3,458 acres will be new clearcuts, and the additional impacts to this already heavily-logged area are simply unacceptable.”
The group filed an appeal with the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals after U.S. District Judge Dana Christensen dismissed the lawsuit in July.
Logging was to begin on Thursday. On Tuesday, 9th Circuit Judges Kim McLane Wardlaw and Consuelo Callahan temporarily halted the project until further order.
The judges also ordered the appeal to be expedited.
“It’s outrageous that the leading fringe litigator is stopping a made-in-Montana collaborative forest project. We need to urgently move forward on forest reform to stop this type of litigation, increase the health of our forests and create more jobs,” U.S. Sen. Steve Daines, R-Mont., said.
The Forest Service said in its record of decision that the harvest and management activities would contribute to the economy and improve forest conditions and wildlife habitat by reducing hazardous fuel loading.
The harvest was slated to be dispersed over the 92,407-acre project area. Approximately 91 percent of the harvest would be accomplished with ground-based systems and 9 percent by skyline yarding. An estimated 37 percent — approximately 3,310 acres — of the harvest would be restricted to winter harvest to protect resources.
Road maintenance work would have been applied to 176 miles of haul roads and 9.25 miles of new permanent roads would be developed to access harvest units. Another 4.26 miles of temporary road would be developed.
Access to the recreation sites on the south side of the mouth of Fivemile Creek and in the
Yarnell area would also be improved. New road construction and improvement of existing
access would occur to provide more opportunities for dispersed campsites. A new non-motorized trail within the East Reservoir analysis area would be created. The
2.75 mile loop would be located south of the mouth of Cripple Horse Creek between Lake Koocanusa and Montana State Highway 37.
Five trails totaling 27 miles — 279, 280, 420, 426, and 500 — would change access from motorized to non-motorized.