Between April and August, the Bitterroot National Forest spent nearly $162,000 marking about 2,500 acres of proposed logging units for the Middle East Fork Hazardous Fuel Reduction project, though the comment period on the proposal is still open and no official decision has been issued. This information comes courtesy of a Freedom of Information Act request filed by Missoula’s Native Forest Network, which has lobbied long and hard against the Forest Service’s preferred alternative plan that calls for logging more than 4,000 acres of old-growth stands in the Bitterroot Forest.
While Tracy Hollingshead, Sula district ranger, says the work is being done to shorten the lag between decision and action should the agency’s preferred alternative be adopted—which it hasn’t been, she says—others say it’s proof that the Bitterroot Forest isn’t considering any alternative but its own.
“If this wasn’t the case, then why did [they] waste $162,000 in taxpayer funds? We demand accountability,” says Larry Campbell, with Friends of the Bitterroot. “Such governmental deception does a huge disservice to genuine democratic process. Governmental toying with the public creates cynicism and acts to poison civic participation.”
Hollingshead says the forest doesn’t typically handle projects this way, but there’s a special urgency because the forest will lose money if dead timber loses its value before it’s logged and sold. She concedes, though, that the head start doesn’t look good.
A second FOIA request revealed that 98 percent of more than 10,000 public comments submitted to the Forest Service opposed the agency’s plan. NFN Director Matthew Koehler says this is further proof the Bitterroot isn’t heeding the feedback it solicits, and that the process is a charade.
He adds, too, that it’s mighty ironic that this is the first Healthy Forest Restoration Act project in Montana since President Bush signed the act in 2003. As part of the tree marking, the Forest Service is spray-painting two-foot high bright orange “W”s onto the trees to be left behind in the Middle East Fork. Koehler says they’ll stand as an ugly reminder of an agency and an administration gone awry.