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An unsettling settlement

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Local environmental group Friends of the Bitterroot recently settled a long-standing legal dispute with Bitterroot Forest Supervisor Dave Bull, but the group says that if it weren’t for mounting legal bills, they think they could have continued the case and won.

The dispute originated after a Sept. 22, 2005, press conference at Bull’s office in Hamilton. The plaintiffs—Jim Miller, Larry Campbell and Steward Brandborg, all members of Friends of the Bitterroot—were denied entrance to the event despite the fact that other members of the public were allowed to attend. The group claimed they were denied entrance because of their political viewpoint.

The group wanted to attend the event to hear Bull’s announcement of the Middle East Fork Project, a plan to rehabilitate the forest after the 2000 summer wildfires. Miller says Friends of the Bitterroot had been involved in the project’s development from the beginning, although Bull ended up choosing a different alternative than the one proposed by the group.

“We had been working on the project for a couple of years and had attended every meeting up to that point,” Miller says. “This was the final decision meeting. After being involved with this project through field trips, public meetings, writing comments, proposing our own alternative, we had a very strong vested interest in attending the meeting where the final decision would be announced.”

The three plaintiffs filed suit against Bull and the U.S. Forest Service, alleging violation of their First Amendment rights. U.S. District Judge Donald Molloy dismissed the charges against the Forest Service but ruled that Bull was not immune from a lawsuit. Bull appealed to the Ninth Circuit Court. The court denied Bull’s appeal for immunity and kicked it back to Molloy. The group had to settle once the suit dragged on.

“Each step of the way, the cost for a small organization like Friends of the Bitterroot is too much,” says Miller. “We could not afford to continue.”

He adds that he believes the group could have won the case if it had more money.

Bull declined to comment on the settlement, saying only: “I’m glad it’s over and I look forward to moving on.”

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