Environmentalists who helped craft last winter’s historic logging agreement with the Bitterroot National Forest (BNF) are now charging forest officials with breaching that agreement.
They say forest officials made changes to the final environmental impact statement (EIS) written after the fires of 2000 and never solicited public comment on any of those changes.
A BNF official who led the EIS team counters that only small adjustments were made to reflect changing conditions in the forest.
Jeff Juel of the Ecology Center in Missoula, and Liz Mitchell, an attorney for the Western Environmental Law Center in Idaho, were both involved in last February’s court-ordered settlement agreement that brought BNF officials, environmentalists and loggers to the same table to hammer out a compromise on post-fire forest management. The settlement was ordered by U.S. District Judge Don Molloy following the legal chaos that resulted when environmentalists challenged a BNF proposal to restore the forest partially through logging after the wildfires of 2000.
Since then, environmental monitors have kept a watchful eye on the logging that was allowed to proceed under the compromise.
Last month about three dozen environmentalists from around the country accompanied acting BNF Supervisor Spike Thompson on a tour of two of the logging sales allowed as part of the settlement. At both the Little Bull and Robbins Gulch timber sales south of Hamilton, environmentalists noticed differences between what had been allowed in the official record of decision and what was actually taking place on the ground.
Specifically, says Juel, there was extreme soil damage on a steep slope at one site where cut logs had been dragged uphill, a method known as “skyline yarding.” The record of decision allowed for winter logging only at that site to minimize soil damage.
At another site, says Juel, the record of decision specified that big trees would be left standing. What the monitors saw, however, were big trees lying in a log pile.
When confronted about the two deviations from the official proposal, Juel says Thompson acknowledged that a total of nine or 10 changes had been made, but that they were insignificant.
Thompson had previously admitted to four deviations in previous interviews with reporters. But Juel says it wasn’t until environmentalists confronted Thompson on-site that he admitted to approving any changes at all.
On the face of it the changes do, in fact, seem insignificant, and the Forest Service’s own rules allow such changes to be made without public comment as long as they’ve been properly reviewed and documented, which they were, according to the BNF.
Stu Lovejoy, the EIS team leader and spokesman for Thompson (who was unavailable for comment), says the nine or 10 changes were made to reflect changing conditions. “What was allowed was consistent with the intent of the project all along,” says Lovejoy.
From the BNF’s point of view, the changes were made properly, according to agency rules, and with an eye towards efficiency, economics and fuel reduction.
It’s that latter term—fuel reduction—that now has environmentalists at odds with the Forest Service. Where the agency sees a need to reduce the “fuel” that has built up in western forests through decades of aggressive firefighting, environmentalists see it as simply an excuse to allow more logging.
Lovejoy says the work of reducing fuel through logging will be done—either at a profit or a loss. If the BNF can sell the timber and reduce fire danger at the same time, that is good news for taxpayers. If not, the taxpayers will have to pick up the tab to pay someone to do a job that has to be done anyway.
“We’re taking that first step to do fuel reduction, and some of that is through logging,” Lovejoy says. There is a sense of urgency in getting the trees cut and to market before they lose even more value, he says. “Yeah, economics is a consideration but resource protection is important too.”
That’s all just greenwashing as far as environmentalists are concerned. Logging, says Juel, is the “Trojan horse” in a project that was sold to the public as a way of paying for other non-logging restoration and fuel reductions strategies.
If Lovejoy is saying now that the BNF will have to pay people to thin overtimbered lands, he’s lying, says Juel. “They don’t have the money for it.”
Instead, BNF officials have relied on their own rules—rules which were developed behind closed doors, Juel says—simply to get the cut, regardless of the accumulating damages done here and there across the forest.
“These rules were never subject to any public process,” says Juel. Any work proposed must be fully disclosed in an EIS, he adds. “To me, that means they need to go back to the public.”
If full public disclosure creates what Forest Service Chief Dale Bosworth has cleverly termed “analysis paralysis,” it’s only because forest officials have pushed the BNF to the outer limits of sustainable logging and can no longer justify controversial logging projects without significant documentation.
“Certainly it takes a lot of work,” says Juel, “but the reason is it’s because it’s increasingly unjustifiable.”
The next step for environmental groups, says Mitchell, of the Western Environmental Law Center, is to review the information from the BNF for consistency with the record of decision and the settlement agreement.
No legal action against the forest is pending, she says. For now, there’s just a feeling among environmentalists that the BNF violated not only the spirit of the decision and settlement agreement, but the substance of it as well.