Burned at both ends 

Feds turn up the heat on Bitterroot National Forest

It hasn’t been an award-winning year for the Bitterroot National Forest (BNF).

As if a federal judge’s scathing denouncement of BNF actions wasn’t enough criticism, the BNF was also taken to task this month by the inspector general of its own parent agency, the U.S. Department of Agriculture, for spending nearly $2 million on preparations for commercial timber sales rather than on forest restoration, as Congress had intended.

In late November, the USDA Office of the Inspector General (OIG) found that the BNF had misspent $1.8 million of national fire plan money intended for forest restoration. Instead, according to the OIG, the BNF spent the fire plan money on preparing the Burned Area Environmental Impact Statement, which the OIG says is a commercial timber sale document and therefore ineligible for national fire plan funds.

“We conclude that the commercial timber sales do not merit the criteria for forest restoration,” the OIG report reads. “[W]e questioned the Bitterroot National Forest’s plans to use [national fire plan] rehabilitation and restoration program funds to fund the cost to prepare and administer these projects, when the primary purpose of the projects may be a commercial timber sale.”

In addition, the OIG found that six national forests within Region 1 (which includes all of Montana) spent $470,000 to administer mushroom harvest permits. While Region 1 officials say they believe the permitting was necessary to prevent further damage to a severely burned landscape and that it fit the criteria for allowable projects under the national fire plan program, the OIG saw things otherwise.

Jonathan Oppenheimer, forest analyst for Taxpayers for Common Sense, a Washington D.C. watchdog group, says an anonymous tipster instigated the investigation by alerting the USDA that forest restoration money may have been misspent.

The inspector general, Oppenheimer says, found that the BNF “had abused restoration and rehabilitation funds to plan and prepare timber sales, which is clearly in violation of the appropriation from Congress and can be seen as a deliberate misuse of tax dollars.”

The report clearly indicates that the sales prepared by the BNF were commercial timber sales and not restoration sales. “The Office of the Inspector General is no radical environment organization,” says Oppenheimer.

BNF officials referred all questions about the OIG report to Mike Paterni, regional coordinator for the national fire plan program at Region 1 headquarters in Missoula. Paterni, who hasn’t seen the report yet, says the inspectors either misunderstood or misinterpreted what they saw when they investigated the complaint.

“They just misunderstood what we were doing,” Paterni says. He says USDA inspectors interviewed field staffers who are trained to speak in the technical language of commercial timber sale preparation and may have given the inspectors the impression they were laying out timber sales, when in fact they were not. “I think that was interpreted as preparing a timber sale,” he says. “That could be interpreted as doing some work in preparation for selling something. It’s a little bit of a semantics thing.”

At the time Congress was debating the national fire plan appropriation, smoke was still heavy in the air, Forest Service workers were exhausted and there was some confusion about precisely what the national fire plan money was for, Paterni argues.

“There was some confusion about the source of the funds and what to call them.” In any case, Paterni says an argument could be made that some salvage logging does meet the criteria for forest restoration set forth in the national fire plan program.

BNF officials have six months to respond to the OIG’s recommendations for better oversight of national fire plan projects. Other than that, there appears to be no immediate fallout from the report. “As far as I know,” says Oppenheimer, “there’s been no action taken as far as anyone getting a reprimand.”

On the heels of that critical report came Federal District Judge Donald Molloy’s condemnation of the BNF’s attempt to eliminate the public appeal of the Burned Area EIS and turn the matter over to the Washington, D.C. office for final approval.

On Dec. 18 Molloy granted a temporary restraining order halting any logging at the request of two environmental groups, American Wildlands and the Wilderness Society, while a request for an injunction is pending.

“The precipitous action here of electing to take the law into its own hands will cause the very difficulty the agency reasons it is trying to avoid,” Molloy wrote. By attempting to deny administrative appeal, and by its “impetuous decision to disregard what Congress requires, the Forest Service is causing further delay in its already languid decision-making, thus impeding the legitimate interests of those who want to harvest the salvage timber.”

“I think it’s clear, the judge agrees Congress allows for the right to appeal,” says Abigail Dillen, an attorney for the Bozeman-based Earthjustice Legal Defense Fund, which is representing the two environmental groups.

For now, the two groups and their law firm are challenging only the effort to eliminate the administrative appeal on the Burned Area EIS, says Dillen. They have not sued on the merits of the EIS, which numerous environmental groups say is scientifically flawed. Though the BNF says hundreds of agency scientists contributed to the final EIS, environmentalists point out that not all agree that a huge salvage sale—estimated at more than 170 million board feet—is in the best interests of the flora or fauna of the forest.

For now, however, environmentalists are concentrating on the task ahead of them: a Jan. 3 hearing in Molloy’s courtroom on their request for an injunction to stop any timber harvest from occurring.

Already Molloy has hinted that American Wildlands and the Wilderness Society have “demonstrated a strong likelihood of succeeding on the merits of the case.”

Says Dillen: “In our view, the regulations were clear and it’s not an onerous process. It could have been over in two months.”

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