Judge halts planned logging in Helena-area roadless area

Ten Mile-South Helena Logging

A large roadless area on the Continental Divide West of Helena, Montana will not be logged and burned as a result of a lawsuit brought by several grassroots ( code for “broke”) conservation groups I’ve worked with since the 1980s. Although this is not a total victory, the “defacto wilderness” is protected for now.

The following (and photo) is from Tom Kuglin a reporter at the Helena Independent Record: “Roadside logging and other fuels reduction work south of Helena has been ongoing since 2019 for the Ten-Mile South Helena Project.

A federal judge has halted the U.S. Forest Service’s plans to log and do other fuels reduction work in portions of an inventoried roadless area near Helena.”

Calling the Forest Service’s contention that no road construction would occur in the Lazyman Gulch Inventoried Roadless Area as part of the Ten Mile-South Helena Project “false, or at best, a gross misrepresentation,” District Court Judge Dana Christensen sided with Helena Hunters and Anglers Association and the Montana Wildlife Federation that the agency’s plan ran counter to environmental law and rules. While siding with the agency on other fronts, the judge also agreed with Alliance for the Wild Rockies and Native Ecosystems Council that analysis of new trails’ impacts on threatened grizzly bears was insufficient. Download PDF 

The Forest Service approved Ten Mile-South Helena in late 2018. Work includes logging, thinning and prescribed burning as well as some trail work and stream restoration on 17,500 acres within a 60,000-acre project area southwest of Helena. The Ten Mile drainage supplies one of two sources of water for the city.

Within the project the agency authorized about 2,000 acres of logging and other fuels reduction in the Lazyman located south of Unionville.

In 2019 Helena Hunters and the Montana Wildlife Federation filed suit, contending that the plan violated roadless rules and the use of machinery to log required additional environmental analysis. The groups argued that logging and thinning would compromise wildlife habitat, particularly for big game, and that the plan would require road construction or reconstruction for equipment.

The alliance and council filed suit as well, but over the entirety of the project. The groups challenged its cumulative impact with another project south of Elliston and questioned the sufficiency of analysis for impacts to wildlife.

The lawsuits were later combined. As the case progressed, Lewis and Clark County, the state of Montana, the city of Helena and the Montana Bicycle Guild either intervened or filed briefs in support of the Forest Service.

In an opinion that was pointed at times, Christensen was critical of the Forest Service’s contention that no road construction or reconstruction was needed within Lazyman. When submitting travel routes for the project, the Forest Service said historic routes within the area would be obliterated once logging was complete.

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“These more-than-hundred-year-old routes have never been recognized as ‘system’ roads by the Forest Service, and, after decades of nonuse, they are largely overgrown. Using these historic routes is central to alternative four and, in the Forest Service’s mind, avoids the need for road construction,” the judge noted.

But whether the routes as is or with minimal clearing were sufficient to accommodate logging equipment became a central contention in the case. The judge allowed the parties to submit photos and other documentation cataloging the current state of roads or other routes in the area and found that equipment could not be used without construction or reconstruction, saying the agency’s conclusion was “false” or a “gross misrepresentation.”

“The matter is not one that involves specialized or expert knowledge,” Christensen wrote. “The problem is basic geometry. A vehicle with a wheelbase 9 to 11 feet wide requires a road similarly wide. The Lazyman area does not contain a network of preexisting roads 9 to 11 feet wide. Therefore, bringing this equipment into the area will require the Forest Service to widen the roads.”

Christensen further found that the Forest Service had acted in “bad faith” in its documenting of roads and routes in Lazyman. Specifically, the judge said the agency “minimized” the characterization of work required to open routes between earlier drafts and the final release. Because of the minimal road work deemed necessary, the Forest Service did not document many of the proposed routes in its travel route analysis.

“The Forest Service was aware that its decision to mechanically log the roadless area was controversial, and instead of confronting that decision openly with documentation and analysis, the Forest Service did just the opposite: it deliberately omitted any information that might cast doubt on its assertion that the existing routes could be utilized,” Christensen wrote.

Another major contention of the lawsuit centered on whether additional analysis was required for the decision to use logging equipment in Lazyman. In earlier analysis which included input from collaborators, the Forest Service explored logging and fuels reduction work without the use of equipment, but in its final alternative determined equipment should be used.

“The Forest Ranger recognized that the activities proposed in the roadless areas are controversial; nevertheless she “felt [using mechanized equipment] is essential to provide safe conditions for forest workers and … can be conducted with minimal resource impacts,” the judge wrote.

Christensen found that a shift to mechanized equipment represented a substantial change and that the public needed additional opportunity to comment. The means to do that is to issue a supplemental environmental impact statement.

An apparent disagreement or misunderstanding of what constitutes a road also drew the attention of the judge. Contractors constructed a road outside of Lazyman as part of a timber sale that did not appear in the Forest Service’s record of decision. However, when challenged on the construction, the agency’s attorney initially responded that the “feature” was not a road – an assertion later retracted and attributed to miscommunication.

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The judge took a dim view of the exchange but found that because it fell outside of Lazyman, it was not legally relevant to the lawsuit.

“That anyone, at any time, could assert that the feature depicted ‘is not a road,’ smells of bad faith,” Christensen wrote. “The Court will consider this statement only insomuch as it bolsters Helena Hunters’ claim that the Forest Service is not being honest about the roads.”

Christensen remanded the Lazyman portion of the decision to the Forest Service with the directive that a supplemental environmental impact statement be prepared to proceed with logging and other fuels reduction in the roadless area.

Gayle Joslin with Helena Hunters said Thursday that despite the highly politicized nature of bringing the lawsuit, the groups felt someone needed to speak up for wildlife and the importance of roadless areas as blocks of habitat.

“I think our concern has always been for wildlife habitat and particularly big game,” she said. “From Helena Hunters and Anglers’ perspective, we’re concerned about that and habitat in roadless areas is really essential, so in scope activity on the landscape, roadless areas have become really precious places.”

Christensen ruled in favor of the Forest Service on the sufficiency of analysis for proposed trails in Lazyman as well as an amendment addressing elk security.

On the lawsuit brought by the alliance and council, the judge largely found for the Forest Service. Christensen ruled against the groups’ assertion that Ten Mile and the adjacent Telegraph project should have been analyzed as a single project due to cumulative impacts even though they are slated for the same time.

“That the Projects are now set to proceed on similar timelines as a result of litigation does not indicate that the Forest Service arbitrarily decided to treat the Projects as separate NEPA actions,” the judge wrote.

Christensen did find that the Forest Service would need to consult with U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service on the impacts to grizzly bears of proposed trails that would allow mountain bikes, but called the error “limited” and said the remaining parts of the project outside of Lazyman may proceed.

The project as a whole includes several timber sales, thinning and prescribed burns across the landscape.

“As the Order notes, the survival of grizzly bears is dependent on ‘secure habitat’ and this ruling is now precedent that the Forest Service will be required to follow,” alliance executive director Mike Garrity said. “Both roadless areas and grizzly bear habitat now have stronger protection from the Forest Service’s insatiable need to get the cut out for the timber industry.”

Helena-Lewis and Clark Forest Supervisor Bill Avey said the agency was still reviewing the decision Thursday.

“We’re disappointed with the decision but of course are still determining what our future course of actions will be in relation to additional analysis or other legal options,” he said. “We still believe strongly as the Lump Gulch fire demonstrated recently that fuels reduction at an appropriate scale is necessary in this landscape.”

Avey declined to comment specifically on the judge’s concerns over whether the agency minimized the type and scale of proposed road work, but said, “I think our record is that we’ve always been very transparent.”

Reporter Tom Kuglin can be reached at 447-4076 @IR_TomKuglin

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