Montana: County joins forest lawsuit against Forest Service

By Jim Mann
The Daily Inter Lake


Flathead County, Montana - After hearing pros and cons on joining a lawsuit against the Forest Service, the Flathead County commissioners quickly voted to do so Tuesday, and will apparently join two other western Montana counties as plaintiffs.

About 30 people attended a hearing on the issue, most of them urging the commissioners to sign on as plaintiffs. Several people, most of them members of local conservation groups, admonished the commissioners for joining litigation led by a "special interest" group.

"Should the county be involved with a lawsuit brought forward by an individual group?" asked Neal Brown, a longtime member of Flathead Audubon. "I don't care if it's Montanans for Multiple Use or Flathead Audubon. Save your time and my money."

Fred Hodgeboom, one of the organizers behind the lawsuit, counters that the legal action is hardly driven by one group. So far, the list of plaintiffs includes seven organizations, two businesses, two state legislators and a business owner, along with the Flathead and Sanders county commissions.

The Lincoln County commissioners are scheduled to vote on joining the lawsuit this morning.

There have been multiple lawsuits against the Flathead National Forest by environmental groups that have been rooted in the Endangered Species Act. But this lawsuit asks the court to take notice of requirements in a series of other laws that specifically pertain to national forest management.

The lawsuit contends the Flathead's forest plan has unlawfully been revised through 23 "piecemeal" amendments since it was adopted in 1986. Forest plan revision is a formal process that's supposed to be carried out every 15 years under provisions of the National Forest Management Act, the lawsuit says.

It alleges that the forest officials have failed to follow provisions in the Sustained Yield-Multiple Use Act, the Federal Land Policy Management Act and the Administrative Procedures Act.

"By supporting this litigation, we wish to send a message to the U.S. Forest Service that the people of Montana demand change to restore active management and protection of our forests as required by law," states a letter from the Sanders County Board of Commissioners.

Several lawsuit backers told the Flathead commissioners that it is entirely proper for them to represent the wishes of county residents who have long been frustrated with road closures, declining timber harvests and other trends on the Flathead Forest.

Some speakers wore yellow T-shirts saying, "81 percent voted 'No,'" a reference to an election "poll" conducted several years ago in northwest Montana counties to measure support for road closures and the Clinton administration's proposals to expand roadless areas.

Through much of the hearing, backers took aim at the litigation record of environmental groups that have been highly successful in influencing forest management policies.

"It's become pretty clear that the will of the people doesn't really matter as long as we have litigation," said Dave Skinner, a Montanans for Multiple Use member.

"They don't bring anything," said Whitefish resident J.B. Stone, referring to environmentalists. "They don't make anything. They don't make jobs. They're supported by outside money. Their job is to destroy jobs."

Mark Agather, speaking on behalf of the Flathead Business and Industry Association, said the Forest Service has "routinely failed" to properly manage forests in the region.

As a result, he said, forest health is being neglected, the potential for catastrophic fire increases, the wood-products industry suffers and so do the assocation's 150 member businesses.

"I've heard people say this is not a Montana issue, it's a federal issue," he said. But when federal policies have so many consequences on local economies, "it is a Montana issue."

The commissioners have contended the county will not be financially obligated in the lawsuit.

Keith Hammer, a local environmentalist who has engaged in multiple lawsuits against the Flathead Forest, warned that the commissioners and the county attorney's office will spend taxpayer money on the lawsuit.

Hammer's organization, the Swan View Coalition, is poised to sue the Flathead Forest on grounds that it is not closing and reclaiming enough roads in the Big Creek drainage to meet grizzly bear habitat and water quality standards.

He said the Big Creek drainage has 171 miles of road compared to just 113 miles of stream, and that is the major reason the state of Montana declared Big Creek an impaired drainage in 1992.

And the Forest Service's failure to address that designation is a major reason for the lawsuit, he said.

Hammer said that the agency's road policies are largely driven by matters that have nothing to do with environmentalists' concerns. The Forest Service has a massive road maintenance backlog that is impossible to meet, he said.

Dave Hadden, a field representative for the Montana Wilderness Association, said Montana's timber industry has struggled largely because of global competition, rather than opposition by environmental groups.

Montana timber workers routinely contend that a drastic constriction in the available supply of federal timber over the last decade undermined their ability to compete.

Karen Reeves, a Democrat who was defeated in the last commissioner election by Gary Hall, said the Flathead's economy is doing well, precisely because of its rich natural attractions.

The prospect of the county joining a lawsuit against the Forest Service is "appalling" and "unconscionable," Reeves said.

After the public comment period, commissioners Bob Watne and Gary Hall voted to join the lawsuit with no discussion. Commissioner Howard Gipe was absent because of illness, said Watne, the commission chairman.

Reporter Jim Mann may be reached at 758-4407 or by e-mail at


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