HELENA – Leaders with the Helena-Lewis and Clark National Forest want to postpone a delayed timber project north of Lincoln, until they can do further analysis on how last summer’s wildfires affected the area.
Forest supervisor Bill Avey announced Tuesday that the Park Creek and Arrastra Creek fires – which eventually merged into one – had made significant impacts on the wildlife, soils and other natural factors in the project area.
“I’m not withdrawing my decision for this project, but we must review changed conditions when they are relevant to the environmental effects of an ongoing action,” Avey said in a statement.
The Forest Service is asking a federal district court in Missoula to let the agency create a supplemental environmental impact statement and make modifications to its plans for the Stonewall project area.
Leaders say the Forest Service is obligated to do further analysis as part of the process they must follow under the National Environmental Policy Act.
Starting in July, the Park Creek and Arrastra Creek fires burned through 13,390 acres of the Stonewall project area – more than half of the area the Forest Service had studied. 2,719 of those acres had been identified for logging or prescribed burning.
The Stonewall project was intended to improve forest health, reduce fuel for wildfires and provide better habitat for wildlife. Avey issued a final decision in 2016 to let it move forward.
The project was put on hold in May 2017 by a court order. Environmental groups, including the Alliance for the Wild Rockies, filed suit, arguing the planned work could threaten critical lynx habitat.
Mike Garrity, the Alliance’s executive director, said he doesn’t take issue with the Forest Service doing additional analysis, but that he wants leaders to withdraw their decision in favor of the project first. He said that would be the best way to ensure the findings aren’t affected by what the agency is already planning.
He criticized the Forest Service’s request to leave a timber sale contract in place during the supplemental EIS process.
“You can’t do an impartial analysis if you’re keeping the contract,” he said.
The Stonewall project became a focus for debate over forest management practices this summer. During a roundtable in September, U.S. Rep. Greg Gianforte highlighted the Stonewall project as an example of how Montana forests should be managed. He argued, if the project had gone forward, it might have reduced the danger from the fires.
“With half of the Stonewall Vegetation Project burned, the Forest Service is left studying the damaged resources to see what can be done,” Gianforte said in a statement Tuesday.
Gianforte has supported federal legislation to reduce the environmental analysis required on forest management projects and require some challenges to those projects to be settled through arbitration instead of litigation.
“The Resilient Federal Forests Act, which I cosponsored and passed the House last year, addresses issues that hamper our ability to manage our forests, including frivolous lawsuits from environmental extremist groups,” his statement continued. “It’s time for the Senate to move forward on this important bill.”
Garrity has denied that the Alliance’s lawsuits are frivolous, saying most of those the group has filed have been successful. He also argued the Park Creek and Arrastra Creek fires burned at relatively low severity in most of the Stonewall project area.