MT counties sue feds over roadless plan 

Costs vs. cleanup

In a show of solidarity with the beleaguered town of Libby, the Montana Coalition of Forest Counties voted to sue the U.S. Forest Service over the roadless initiative, the Clinton Administration proposal that would keep nearly 60 million acres of roadless land nationwide from being developed.

The Coalition’s lawsuit is one of three challenging the roadless plan. Like a similar lawsuit filed against the Forest Service by the state of Idaho, the 28-county Coalition accuses the agency of approving a proposal that had a predetermined outcome.

Rita Windom, a Lincoln County commissioner, says her county sued after its plan to develop a ski resort near Libby was scuttled by the roadless initiative. Windom says the county had worked with a local economic development agency for the past eight years to find funding for the planned Treasure Mountain Ski Area. The Environmental Impact Statement required for the project had already been written, investors were lining up and the county itself had invested seed money to get the project going. Then came the roadless initiative. It stopped the fledgling development in its tracks because a new road would have been necessary to access the ski area, and the road would have gone though a roadless area. “They would not grandfather it in [to the initiative],” she says of the Forest Service. “That was significant harm.”

The demise of Treasure Mountain was another terrible blow to a town suffering the devastating public health effects from the asbestos found in the W.R. Grace vermiculite mine. “We take it very personal in our county,” says Windom. “We were looking at it as being a real positive impact.”

The other 27 counties in the Coalition apparently took Libby’s woes personally as well, because it voted to join Lincoln County in its efforts to stop the roadless plan from being implemented.

Ravalli County Commission Chairman Alan Thompson is vice chair of the Coalition. He says the decision to join with Lincoln County was the 18-month-old group’s first major decision.

Though Ravalli County isn’t likely to be harmed financially by the roadless initiative, he says, Lincoln and Flathead counties will be directly affected. He adds that the majority of the 1.6 million people who commented on the proposal were supportive, but were mostly city dwellers who won’t feel the economic impacts. “These are people who have never been to Montana or Idaho,” Thomspon says. “These people are from Kansas City and Detroit.”

Regardless of the “overwhelming support” from citizens across the nation, Thompson says the Forest Service “had already predetermined what they wanted and went through the motions.”

The Montana Coalition of Forest Counties is being represented free of charge by the Mountain States Legal Foundation of Denver.

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