Legal logjam on East Fork 

Three environmental groups filed a lawsuit and an injunction Wednesday, April 26, aimed at halting the Middle East Fork Hazardous Fuel Reduction Project, a Bitterroot National Forest (BNF) project that’s already provoked one court case.

Friends of the Bitterroot (FOB), The Ecology Center and Native Forest Network have joined forces to halt a project they say violates the law on several counts, ranging from poor public process to manipulated scientific data to irreparable environmental damage the plaintiffs claim would result from the Forest Service’s plan.

The project, one of the first in Montana under the Health Forests Restoration Act (HFRA), would treat about 5,000 acres and harvest about 11 million board feet of commercial timber. Bitterroot Supervisor Dave Bull issued a Record of Decision March 30 moving ahead with 75 percent of the agency’s preferred alternative, while delaying a decision on the remainder until more scientific data is gathered.

About half of the groups’ claims address on-the-ground issues relating to degradation of soil, streams and old-growth habitat. Four claims, though, address the administrative manner in which the forest has worked to develop the Middle East Fork project.

The fact that BNF spent more than $200,000 in 2005 marking trees in logging units before a decision was made shows the agency’s ultimate decision was a foregone conclusion, the complaint says. Likewise, the HFRA-mandated collaboration process wasn’t legitimate, they say: “Throughout the public process, Plaintiffs and their members were deceived, excluded, misled, ignored, forcibly detained, or otherwise turned away…in an obvious attempt by Defendants to selectively control public participation…” For instance, FOB members were kicked out of a MEF news conference in September, itself now the subject of a pending suit. The groups also question the project’s data, citing documents from now-retired BNF soil scientist Ken McBride, who says his findings were “erroneously reinterpreted, rewritten and changed” by officials.

“The public process has been abysmal,” says FOB’s Larry Campbell. “This can’t be left unchallenged to set the standard for future HFRA projects in Montana.”

Sula District Ranger Tracy Hollingshead had not yet seen the lawsuit and so was unable to respond to its charges.

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