Lolo forest work comes to halt - Judge orders stoppage after environmentalists sue

By SHERRY DEVLIN of the Missoulian

April 30, 2003

Lolo National Forest, Montana - On orders from U.S. District Judge Donald Molloy, the Lolo National Forest on Monday shut down all work - including logging, road repair and tree planting - on thousands of acres burned during the 2000 wildfire season.

But forest supervisor Debbie Austin said she will ask the judge to clarify his order, which granted the request of two environmental groups and enjoined the U.S. Forest Service "from proceeding on Lolo National Forest post-burn project activities affecting Trout Creek, Ninemile Creek, the Clark Fork River, Flat Creek and Big Blue Creek."

"At this point in time, we have to shut down all activities authorized under the record of decision," Austin said. "All work stops. But there will be a lot of conversation between our attorneys and the plaintiffs' attorneys and the judge over the next week."

Also yet to come is Molloy's full opinion, which was not attached to the order signed at the close of business Friday.

Nine timber sales were planned in the burned areas. Loggers already were at work on two sales, and Lolo forest officials were in the midst of negotiations with contractors selected for this summer's road and forest restoration projects.

And tree seedlings were ready for planting on 1,000 acres. "We already have the trees," Austin said. "If we can't plant them, they go to waste."

The judge's ruling brought an immediate and angry outcry from St. Regis, where Tricon Timber was already logging the Landowner salvage sale.

"To have environmental organizations litigate, close sales and destroy the economies and social fabric of small towns is absolutely despicable," said Pat Hayes of the Mineral County Community Foundation.

At Tricon, assistant manager Angelo Ververis said his mill laid off eight workers and reduced health benefits last week because of earlier, temporary restraining orders signed by Molloy. Tricon, he said, "was able to competitively and profitably work this sale because of a good mix of species, proximity to the mill and a sustainable bid price."

"Tricon has other sales contracted, but none have the optimum mix of conditions necessary for profitable operations," he said.

Spokesmen for the two environmental groups that brought the lawsuit - Alliance for the Wild Rockies and the Sierra Club - insisted Monday that they have no interest in crippling small towns, but do intend to force the Forest Service to follow the law.

"We want to see the good work go forward," said Bob Clark, a conservation organizer at the Sierra Club's Missoula office. "We don't want to throw away the baby with the bath water. We just want new bath water."

Clark said about 2 million board feet of timber already has been cut on the Landowner sale, about half of the total. "They've already gotten a good amount of what they were awarded," he said. "And the mill itself is protected under the contract they signed with the Forest Service. They'll get their money."

Environmentalists filed suit against the Lolo forest saying the post-burn plan allowed logging on 3,000 acres of roadless national forest and would degrade water quality in streams already identified as "water-quality impaired" by the state of Montana.

"We have worked with the Forest Service since last fall to try and resolve some of these issues, and the Forest Service hasn't budged at all," Clark said. "They have chosen an alternative that dumps 50,000 to 100,000 tons of sediment in streams that were already in trouble."

Of particular concern, he said, are Ninemile and Trout creeks - as those streams are in areas to be heavily logged.

Molloy's ruling stopped work until the Montana Department of Environmental Quality sets "total maximum daily load" figures for all streams affected by the post-fire logging and rehabilitation. (The state has warned that it may not have TMDL standards for the Clark Fork Basin until 2007.)

"There's no threshold that the Forest Service can use to determine how much sediment can go into these streams," Clark said. "That's the real crux of the issue. If you don't know how much sediment a stream can handle, we feel the logging should be put on hold until there's a determination that these particular bodies of water are not going to be damaged.

"Without a threshold, you don't know that. But the Forest Service was going to log anyway. We are not going to let them break the law; they have to stay within the law."

"The Forest Service can create more jobs and save taxpayers' money by complying with the law and restoring this area rather than by breaking the law and building more roads," said Michael Garrity, executive director of Alliance for the Wild Rockies.

Austin, however, defended her decision and said state water-quality officials reviewed the post-burn work plan and gave it their approval.

"As long as we are implementing and monitoring the conservation practices we agreed to, the state and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency believe we are meeting the intent of the Clean Water Act," Austin said.

The work does briefly increase the amount of sediment in nearby streams, she said, but in the long term, the work greatly reduces erosion and improves water quality.

"Our analysis showed that the major sediment-producing activities in this project were the restoration activities - not the logging," Austin said. "The timber harvest was producing a very minimal amount of sediment, because we were requiring heavy, heavy mitigation."

The alternative that washes the heaviest load of sediment into streams is the "no action" choice, she added. "And that's where we are now."

The post-burn decision included the removal of 287 miles of roads, upgrading or removal of 108 culverts, reclamation of three mines, weed control along 509 miles of backcountry roads and the "decommissioning" of 224 miles of poorly maintained forest roads.

The logging would have paid for some of the road restoration and removal, according to Austin.

Molloy denied the environmentalists' request for a work stoppage based on plans to log in areas that have no roads. The Sierra Club was disappointed by that piece of the judge's order, Clark said, but isn't sure what its next step will be.

"Our door is open," he said, "and solutions are out there. I think right now we are in a sit-and-wait, open-door type of position."

Reporter Sherry Devlin can be reached at 523-5268 or at


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