A federal judge has ruled that the Gallatin National Forest can log certain sections of trees that were burned in the Millie Fire two years ago.
Last week, U.S. District Judge Dana Christensen of Missoula ruled that two environmental groups failed to prove their points as to why the Gallatin National Forest shouldn't be allowed to log trees along Forest Service roads that were burned in the 2012 Millie Fire along Storm Castle Creek in the Gallatin Canyon.
The Millie Fire burned about 10,000 acres in the Storm Castle Creek drainage.
Last August, the Alliance for the Wild Rockies and Native Ecosystems Council sued the U.S. Forest Service and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, claiming the proposed logging project could harm two endangered species, the grizzly bear and the lynx.
They argued that the Forest Service violated portions of the Endangered Species Act and the National Environmental Policy Act, which requires federal agencies to analyze how projects might affect public land and the species living there.
After granting that the plaintiffs had sufficient although shaky standing to challenge the project, Christensen concluded they failed to prove any of their allegations.
In April 2013, the Forest Service approved the Millie Roadside Hazard Tree Removal Project, which authorized the removal of dead or dying trees along 15 miles of road.
Tree removal was limited to an area within 150 feet of the roads, some of which are only for administrative purposes, in an effort to improve safety, according to Forest Service documents. The logging would affect between 300 and 730 acres.
The Forest Service decided against conducting an environmental assessment because of an exception that allows for projects connected to road maintenance or repair.
The judge ruled they were justified because mechanized equipment would remain on the roads and trees would be felled by hand.
“The project at issue will have no effect on secure habitat because secure habitat, by definition, exists only in areas that are more than 500 meters from any motorized access route,” Christensen wrote. “Thus plaintiffs' allegations that defendants failed to adequately analyze or abide by secure habitat standards ring hollow.”
Initially, the project proposal included almost 200 acres of additional salvage logging beyond the road corridor, but the Forest Service withdrew that part of the proposal.
The environmental groups claimed the Forest Travel Plan required the maintenance of some habitat outside the greater Yellowstone recovery zone, and that logging would reduce the amount of grizzly bear habitat.
They wanted the judge and the Forest Service to consider the Interagency Grizzly Bear Study Team reports from 2011 and 2012, which show the bears are moving farther north into the Gallatin National Forest.
But the judge said the reports didn't support the groups' argument, and in fact, they attested to the health and stability of the grizzly bear population.
Christensen also cited a Forest Service biological assessment that said the roadwork affected an insignificant amount of habitat and that grizzly bears already avoided the roads where the work would be done. Also the travel plan didn't require maintaining habitat above 57 percent.
The groups used similar arguments for lynx, saying the project would negatively affect the endangered cat, which is known to avoid roads and other development.
Christensen agreed that the project area is within designated lynx habitat. However, the fire had rendered the area useless as lynx habitat, because it no longer had the proper vegetation to harbor the snowshoe hare, the cat's main prey.
The project was small enough that it wouldn't eliminate many denning areas, and no new roads would be built, Christensen said.
“Plaintiffs' concern about lynx habitat fragmentation due to roads is misplaced,” Christensen wrote.
Alliance for the Wild Rockies executive director Mike Garrity said the groups would appeal.
“Christensen said that burned forests can't be good lynx habitat. We say they still have trees that fall over to provide habitat, and they recover faster than if they're clear-cut,” Garrity said. “Lynx avoid clear-cuts for a hundred years.”