The controversy surrounding the Bitterroot National Forest’s Middle East Fork Project near Sula widened Oct. 31, when Friends of the Bitterroot members filed a suit alleging that forest officials violated their civil rights by denying them access to a press conference where they announced their preferred alternative for the project.
Jim Miller, Larry Campbell and Stewart Brandborg argue that Forest Supervisor Dave Bull denied their First Amendment rights to speech, association and assembly by allowing only citizens who supported the agency’s plan to attend the Sept. 22 event. The trio was turned away by forest officials accompanied by an armed guard. They argue that the meeting—held in a public building by public officials about a public project on public land—ought to have been open to the public.
“The Forest Service invited people who had one set of beliefs and barred people with another set of beliefs and that’s not right,” Campbell says. “We feel strongly that we need to protect our democratic civil rights here at home, especially given that we’re fighting to establish those rights overseas.”
Dixie Dies, spokeswoman for the Bitterroot National Forest, said Tuesday the agency hadn’t yet reviewed the suit and had no response. The project, one of the nation’s first under the 2003 Healthy Forest Restoration Act, calls for commercially logging about 3,800 acres to reduce wildfire risk and address a bark beetle epidemic, according to the project’s Final Environmental Impact Statement.
Civil rights matters aside, the project has other unsettled issues yet to be taken up. Twenty parties have filed objections to the agency’s preferred alternative, and Sula District Ranger Tracy Hollingshead said Nov. 1 that officials are still deciding how to address them. The agency has until Nov. 23 to respond to the objectors, who range from local citizens to logging and conservation groups that have been involved in the project. The large number of objections—the first HFRA project in Region 1 had only two objections, Hollingshead says—makes the logistics of publicly meeting with and addressing each of the parties difficult, she says.