Federal judge rules National Forest timber project near Elliston can move forward

Posted at 7:03 PM, Aug 02, 2018
and last updated 2018-08-02 22:07:02-04

HELENA – U.S. Forest Service leaders say they plan to move forward immediately on a timber project south of Elliston, after a federal judge ruled against two environmental groups that challenged the project.

The Telegraph Vegetation Project includes management activities, like logging, forest thinning and prescribed burning, on 5,700 acres of the Helena-Lewis and Clark National Forest. Forest leaders say the project is designed to improve forest health and reduce the risk of severe wildfire. It is expected to produce about 25 million board feet of timber for local mills.

The Native Ecosystems Council and the Alliance for the Wild Rockies filed a lawsuit in April 2017 to block the project. They argued the Forest Service hadn’t done enough to determine how the work would affect habitat for wildlife like lynx and grizzly bears. They also said the agency should have addressed “cumulative impacts” the Telegraph project would have in conjunction with the nearby Tenmile-South Helena Vegetation Project.

In a ruling Tuesday, U.S. District Judge Dana Christensen of Missoula dismissed the groups’ claims. He said the Forest Service had sufficiently addressed effects to grizzly bears, and that the agency was justified in using local planners’ definition of the wildland-urban interface when determining where work could be conducted in lynx habitat.

Christensen also said several of the groups’ other claims had not been raised sufficiently during the public comment period on the project or in the plaintiffs’ opening brief.

Helena-Lewis and Clark National Forest supervisor Bill Avey said he was pleased with the judge’s ruling. He said the Telegraph project will bring benefits for the local economy and for the forest.

“The whole idea is in this area that’s been heavily impacted by mountain pine beetle mortality is to try to treat that landscape in a way that makes it much more resilient to both future insect and disease concerns, but also fire,” he said.

Avey said the Telegraph project had been planned out over years, with input from all local stakeholders. He pointed out that Powell County and the Montana Department of Natural Resources and Conservation both filed amicus briefs in support of letting the project go forward.

Mike Garrity, executive director of the Alliance for the Wild Rockies, said the environmental groups disagree with the court’s decision and that they intend to appeal the case to the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.