Bitterroot Settlement Saves Thousands of Forest Acres

MISSOULA, Montana, February 7, 2002 (ENS) - The U.S. Forest Service agreed today to remove 27,000 acres of roadless old growth forest and sensitive fish habitat from a planned logging project in the Bitterroot National Forest in Montana. The settlement with several conservation groups ends months of contentious dispute over a massive, 46,000 acre timber sale that environmentalists warned could set a dangerous precedent for Western logging.

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Fire strikes the East Fork of the Bitterroot River in Montana in August 2000 (Photo by Alaska firefighter John McColgan courtesy National Interagency Fire Center)
The controversial Bitterroot logging plan was settled early Thursday morning after two long days of court ordered mediation by conservation groups, the Forest Service (USFS) and the logging industry.

"This is a great improvement for our wild forests, wildlife habitat, native fish, and, perhaps most importantly, public participation," said Jennifer Ferenstein, Montana resident and president of the Sierra Club. "We have preserved the right of the public to appeal Forest Service decisions that would harm the National Forests they enjoy and want to protect."

The Sierra Club and other environmental groups filed suit against the USFS the day after Undersecretary of Agriculture Mark Rey signed the "Burned Area Recovery" plan, eliminating the public appeals process for the massive logging project.

Federal District Judge Donald Molloy ruled that the USFS illegally shut the public out of its decision making process for the controversial timber sales. The groups were granted a preliminary injunction, which the government appealed. A government request for the approval of "emergency" sales was then denied.

The original Bitterroot project was to be the largest timber sale in United States history, producing 190 million board feet of timber from 46,000 acres of forests burned during the summer forest fires of 2000.

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Start of the Blodgett Fire on July 31, 2000, in the Bitterroot National Forest, Montana. It was extinguished September 11, 2000. (Photo courtesy National Interagency Fire Center)
Under the agreement reached today, only two-thirds of that volume - 55 million board feet - will now be logged. Of the 17,000 acres of roadless area included in the original project, 15,000 will remain untouched, including critical habitat for the bull trout and cutthroat trout.

"The significance of this settlement cannot be overstated," said Larry Campbell of the Friends of the Bitterroot. "We have saved literally 27,000 acres of important watersheds and roadless wildlands on the Bitterroot from the negative impacts of commercial logging. In return, loggers in our valley will be on the ground this winter."

Both Undersecretary Rey, a former timber industry lobbyist, and Forest Service Chief Dale Bosworth were on hand for the court mediation.

Under normal procedures, a forest supervisor would sign the decision, and the public then would have 45 days to appeal the decision to the regional forester. Having Undersecretary Rey sign the plan circumvented that process, removed the ability of citizens to file appeals on the project and virtually insured that the Forest Service would be taken to court, opponents of the sale charged.

"This agreement demonstrates that when the public is provided with an opportunity to express its concerns to the Forest Service we can find a solution that's good for the forest," said Tim Preso of Earthjustice, the attorney who represented American Wildlands, Pacific Rivers Council and The Wilderness Society. "That's why the appeal right at issue in this case is so important."

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Logging a salvage timber sale after a 1994 fire in the Boise National Forest. (Photo courtesy GreenFire Productions)
The Sierra Club and other groups will continue to watch closely to ensure that the logging to be performed in the Bitterroot is done with the least damage possible. Critics argue that salvage logging disrupts the forest's natural cycle of renewal and increases sediment runoff into streams.

"We've protected thousands acres of prime roadless wildlands from roads and commercial logging," said Mary Anne Peine, of the Ecology Center. "Favorite hunting and fishing haunts will be around for all Montanans to enjoy because of this settlement. In the places where logging will go forward, the Forest Service must tread lightly. The people of Montana and the nation will be watching."

The conservation groups involved the mediation were the Friends of the Bitterroot, Ecology Center, American Wildlands, Pacific Rivers Council, Sierra Club, Center for Biological Diversity and The Wilderness Society.