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A face-off over proposed logging southeast of Bozeman heads to court on Tuesday.

Attorneys for Save Our Gallatin Front will ask Gallatin County District Judge Rienne McElyea to grant a preliminary injunction blocking the auction of the Limestone West Timber Sale, a 443-acre project slated for state trust lands. They believe the terms of the auction don’t give them a fair shot at purchasing a 25-year logging deferral.

On the other side, attorneys for the state of Montana argue the terms allow the group to compete on equal terms with other bidders, and that it should be allowed to move forward.

It’s a unique legal battle that centers on a rarely used law that provides logging opponents a chance to outbid timber companies for a deferral of logging activity. Called a conservation license in lieu of timber sale, the procedure was created in 1999 and has only been used once before. Limestone West is the first time a license blocking an entire timber sale has been offered.

The Montana Department of Natural Resources and Conservation first proposed logging the state lands west of Mount Ellis in 2016. Agency officials want to use it to raise money for the state’s trust accounts, and they also believe it will reduce wildfire fuel loads.

But Save our Gallatin Front, a group of nearby residents and others from around the Gallatin Valley, are concerned the project would mar important wildlife habitat in one of the last roadless areas on the outskirts of Bozeman.

The Montana Land Board gave the sale the final OK in January and included the opportunity for a 25-year conservation license. DNRC is accepting bids until March 5.

Save Our Gallatin Front sued DNRC and the land board a day after the sale was approved. A few days later, the group — represented by attorneys from Earth Justice — requested a temporary restraining order to block the sale. The judge did not immediately grant the restraining order but set a hearing on the injunction request.

The group argues the terms of the license are unfair because it would have them pay the trees’ full stumpage value for a 25-year deferral even though the trees would stay standing. Because the trees could be logged after the license expires, they argue, a conservation license shouldn’t be priced the same as a license to log.

In its complaint, the group pointed to testimony from then-DNRC director Bud Clinch to the Montana Legislature in 1999 about the valuation of conservation licenses for timber projects. He told lawmakers conservation licensees would not be charged the price of the timber but the amount of lost interest earnings, according to hearing minutes cited in the complaint. Clinch also told the committee the price would be “a discounted amount of the bid amount,” according to the minutes.

In a brief filed last week, DNRC attorneys disputed the group’s claims, writing that the testimony they point to is “misleading and inapplicable.” The brief says the law is clear and that it requires the buyer of a conservation license to “pay the full, fair market value to defer the entire sale.”

It also says the process DNRC and the land board approved is “typical of the only other previous timber sale” where a conservation license was offered — one in northwestern Montana where a license was used to block a small portion of the sale. DNRC also argues that Save Our Gallatin Front has had “three years to fundraise and prepare for the bidding process now unfolding.”

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Michael Wright can be reached at mwright@dailychronicle.com or at 406-582-2638. Follow him on Twitter @mj_wright1.

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