Triple Tree Logging Proposal

Triple Tree Trail winds into the mountains recently next to Limestone Creek.

Logging opponents have sued the state over its Tuesday approval of a timber sale slated for south of Bozeman, arguing the terms of a 25-year timber harvest deferral also up for bid is unfair and would let the state sell the same trees twice at full value.

Save Our Gallatin Front filed a lawsuit in Gallatin County District Court late Tuesday afternoon challenging the Department of Natural Resources and Conservation and the Montana Land Board over their approval of the Limestone West Timber Sale, a more than 443-acre project proposed for school trust lands southeast of Bozeman.

The Land Board approved the proposal Tuesday morning along with the offering of a conservation license in lieu of a timber sale, a rarely used procedure that would let Save Our Gallatin Front try to outbid the timber companies for a 25-year deferral of any logging activity there.

The complaint, filed by attorneys from Earthjustice, argues the terms of the license are unfair. It would require Save Our Gallatin Front to pay the full stumpage value of the trees slated for the sale even though the trees would remain standing and could be logged after the license expires. The complaint argues that gives DNRC the opportunity to “sell the same trees twice” at full value.

Tim Preso, an Earthjustice attorney, said the group trying to buy a conservation license should only have to pay for the lost revenue to the state trusts rather than the full price a timber company would pay, which includes cash that is funneled into DNRC’s budget. He also said the Limestone West project would mar one of the last roadless areas at the northern edge of the Gallatin Range.

“We’re not making any more of those things,” Preso said. “This is the way they get eroded. A chunk here and a chunk there.”

The filing of the lawsuit will delay the opening of the sale for at least a few days. Dan Rogers, DNRC forest management bureau chief, said the agency had planned to begin advertising the sale on Wednesday but decided to hold off and review the complaint beforehand.

John Grassy, DNRC spokesman, said in an email that the agency has “no further comment at this point.”

The agency first proposed logging near the Limestone Creek drainage in 2016. Nearby residents and others from Bozeman raised concerns that logging would have negative impacts on wildlife and would harm an important roadless corridor connecting the Gallatin Front to Yellowstone National Park.

Save Our Gallatin Front requested the opportunity to bid for a conservation license in 2016, and DNRC issued a final proposal for the project late last month that included the opportunity for the group to bid against timber companies for a 25-year moratorium on logging the area.

On Tuesday, the state land board unanimously approved offering the sale and license for bid. The minimum bid was set at $17.06 per ton of sawlogs, which results in a total price tag of a little more than $376,000. The money would benefit the state trusts for public buildings and the school of mines.

The law that created the conservation license in lieu of timber sale option was passed by the Montana Legislature in 1999. It has only been used once before — to block for 10 years logging on 1.2 acres of a timber sale in northwestern Montana. Limestone West is the first time the law has been used to offer a license blocking an entire sale.

Save Our Gallatin Front’s complaint argues that the law calls for the cost of the conservation license to be based on “the value of lost income to trust beneficiaries over the duration of the license term,” which the group believes would be a lower price and one that’s more fair. To back up that argument, the complaint points to testimony from then-DNRC director Bud Clinch at the 1999 Legislature in which he said conservation licensees wouldn’t pay the full value of the timber but would pay for lost interest to the trust.

Instead, the complaint argues, the license offered for the Limestone West sale “will enable the Land Board and DNRC to reap a windfall from the public by selling the same trees twice, each time for a payment of full stumpage value, over 25 years.”

The suit also notes that the trees slated for the sale would be preserved by the conservation license and that it could take decades for the trees to grow back if they were logged.

“The fair value has to take into account that we’re ultimately preserving the forest for another day,” Preso said.

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

Michael Wright covers the environment and wildlife issues for the Chronicle.

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