It appears that loggers won’t be working in the Bitterroot National Forest any time soon. On Monday night a federal judge stopped the Bitterroot National Forest from implementing its 176 million board-foot timber sale and forest restoration plan proposed last October in its Burned Area Recovery Record of Decision (BAR ROD).
U.S. District Judge Don Molloy ruled in favor of several environmental groups that had sued the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the U.S. Forest Service for attempting to circumvent federal law by eliminating a public appeals process following the preparation of the BAR ROD.
The document now goes back to the Bitterroot National Forest, which must conduct a 45-day appeals process.
After the Bitterroot National Forest issued its BAR ROD in October, officials there asked Agriculture Undersecretary Mark Rey to sign it. Normally, Forest Supervisor Rodd Richardson would be the decision maker, but local forest officials reasoned that Rey’s approval would eliminate the 45-day appeal process and take the issue directly to court, where they predicted it was bound to end up.
Molloy took issue with that gambit, saying in his ruling that the agency’s motives were not valid.
Far from being the nuisance many people believe it is, Molloy wrote that the appeals process “is the one time when interested appellants can find out if relevant data was relied upon or ignored and it provides the agency with an opportunity to flesh out conclusive statements or findings that lack the requisite close look or analysis at first blush.”
Appeals, Molloy wrote, also give the agency a chance to correct mistakes and reconcile inconsistencies “thus narrowing issues that might be subject to judicial review.”
It also provides the court with a complete record should it be challenged legally, and it gives potential plaintiffs legal standing.
“Ultimately, its force is to allow the democratic process of participation in governmental decisions the full breadth and scope to which citizens are entitled in a participatory democracy,” the ruling reads.
Molloy also disagreed with the agency’s argument that the 4,000-plus comments received constituted enough public participation. “The reasoning seems to be that if a decision by the Forest Service involves a large project with great public interest and comment, then there should be less opportunity for public participation after the ROD is made,” Molloy writes. “Logically, the converse is true, the more participation at the comment level before the ROD, the greater the need for Administrative appeal...”
The agency now has at least three options. It can appeal Molloy’s ruling to the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals, it can request an emergency exemption from the chief of the Forest Service to begin logging this winter, or it can go ahead with the appeals process. If the last option is chosen, it would preclude logging this winter.
Bitterroot National Forest officials directed all questions to U.S. Attorney Bill Mercer, who was unavailable for the next few days.