Court Ruling Stalls Portion of Sprawling Kootenai Timber Project

Stakeholders optimistic collaboration will move forward despite 9th Circuit decision

By Tristan Scott
Kootenai National Forest. Beacon File Photo

An appellate court’s ruling against a proposed logging project in the Kootenai National Forest represents another sticking point for the beleaguered East Reservoir timber sale, but falls well short of dealing a terminal blow to the project, according to its proponents.

A diverse group of stakeholders who collaborated to inform the U.S. Forest Service’s decision to approve the timber sale say the ruling only impacts a portion of the large logging project on the east side of Lake Koocanusa, and attorneys believe that a procedural fix to the forest’s proposal will remedy any lingering problems.

“To put this in perspective, this only applies to about 20 percent of the project area and dismisses the rest of the claim as moot,” Lawson Fite, an attorney with the American Forest Resource Council, which is representing defendant intervenors the Kootenai Forest Stakeholders and Lincoln County, said. “So it only applies to a small area, and 80 percent of the project is good to go.”

Responding to a lawsuit filed in 2015 by the Alliance for the Wild Rockies, which sued to stop the project saying it could harm bull trout, grizzly bear and lynx habitat, a three-judge panel of the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled July 27 that the U.S. Forest Service improperly calculated whether the project would exceed limits set for road construction in its own forest plan.

In addition to the Alliance, 30 other organizations and individuals joined the lawsuit to halt the project.

The federal appeals court took up the case two years ago after U.S. District Judge Dana Christensen dismissed the lawsuit in July 2016.

But the Helena-based conservation group’s executive director, Mike Garrity, called it “one of the worst logging projects in decades,” and said the circuit court’s decision marked a victory for the sparse population of grizzly bears that inhabit the imperiled Cabinet-Yaak Ecosystem, where an estimated 55 bears roam.

Because grizzly bears in the Cabinet-Yaak are listed as “threatened” under the federal Endangered Species Act, the Kootenai National Forest Plan must adhere to certain recovery standards in managing its parcels.

Although the timber project doesn’t overlap with any designated grizzly bear recovery zones and lies outside of the Cabinet-Yaak, a portion of the project does overlap with a separate designation known as Bears Outside Recovery Zones, or BORZ, which prescribe less protective management measures but do establish restrictions to motorized vehicle access.

The Kootenai National Forest sets standards for timber management within those BORZ, and, according to the appellate panel, exceeded its standards for baseline road miles.

“They’re not complying with their own rules on logging roads,” Garrity said. “All they have to do is make it a legal timber project.”

But Fite, the attorney with the American Forest Resource Council, said it’s not so black and white.

In attempting to remain under its cap on linear road miles, the Kootenai National Forest proposed building some new roads while decommissioning others so that the net total falls within its established parameters. Where the proposal ran afoul, Fite contends, is that it failed to articulate whether the original cap on baseline road mileage included some “undetermined” roads, or roads not incorporated in the National Forest road system.

“It’s basically a procedural fix,” Fite said.

He described the court’s ruling as frustrating given the level of collaboration that’s taken place leading up to the Forest Service’s decision to sign off on the project.

“You have everyone from conservation groups to the tribe to local counties and the state supporting this, and then Alliance for the Wild Rockies holds it up on the basis of their lawsuit,” he said. “It’s kind of a frustrating situation.”

Called the Kootenai Forest Stakeholders Coalition, the collaborative group includes timber and economic development groups, as well as a slate of local and regional conservation groups.

“We worked really hard through some thorny issues on this,” Paul McKenzie, of Stoltze Land and Lumber in Columbia Falls, said. “We were on the ground making sure that the decision was balanced and took into account wildlife values and timber production, and we had a broad group of collaborators.”

Robyn King, executive director of the Yaak Valley Forest Council, said despite the court’s ruling, she remained optimistic that the project would finally move forward after being beset with litigation for years.

“I think the good news that we have today is that 80 percent of the project is able to move forward, and that leaves 20 percent that needs to be looked,” King said. “And that’s great too. That’s how the system is designed to work. That is why those of us in these collaborative efforts need to embrace the judiciary process.”

The East Reservoir project involves logging 8,845 acres of forest on the east side of Lake Koocanusa, approximately 15 miles east of Libby. The timber total, about 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.

It’s an important project for the state’s timber industry, although numerous salvage projects that are the result of timber sales in swaths of forest that burned last year during one of the most damaging fire seasons on record in Montana are slated to move forward.

According to Julia Altemus, executive director of the Montana Wood Products Association, the Kootenai and Lolo national forests together are estimated to yield nearly 200 million board feet of post-fire salvage.

The largest of the two approved projects in the Kootenai — Cub Creek and West Fork — were expedited through an Emergency Situation Determination, and are expected to result in a harvest of nearly 40 million board feet of timber, generating more than $3 million.

Still, it’s critical for the industry that the green timber sales move forward along with the salvage projects,” Altemus said.

“These were always working in concert together, so it’s imperative we don’t lose the East Reservoir project.”

Correction: An earlier version of this story did not mention the 30 additional organizations and individuals that joined the Alliance for the Wild Rockies in its lawsuit to halt the East Reservoir timber sale.

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