MT, USA — A court decision supporting a Montana project to reduce wildfire fuels under the federal Healthy Forests Restoration Act is under appeal by two environmental groups.
The WildWest Institute and Friends of the Bitterroot appealed to the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals on Friday. The groups challenged a December decision in which U.S. District Judge Donald Molloy of Missoula allowed the Middle East Fork Hazardous Fuels Reduction project to move forward. The project calls for removal of trees and brush on about 5,000 acres in a 25,000-acre area east of Sula in the southern Bitterroot Valley. Bitterroot National Forest officials say the project will reduce wildfire risk and help areas affected by an outbreak of Douglas fir bark beetles.
WildWest and Friends of the Bitterroot say the Forest Service violated federal law by committing resources to the Middle East Fork project prior to a final decision on its status. The groups also say the agency censored scientific findings unfavorable to the project, excluded the public from discussions and gave potential soil problems inadequateattention.
The appeal to the 9th Circuit challenges Molloy’s rejection of those claims.
Besides appealing to the 9th Circuit, the environmental groups asked Molloy for an injunction to prevent logging on 1,252 acres of what the groups consider old-growth forest.
The Forest Service once classified part of the proposed logging area as old-growth forest, then removed the classification in the wake of the beetle epidemic. The agency said the timber no longer met criteria necessary for the old-growth designation.
“The (injunction) would simply allow the court of appeals an opportunity to review the merits of the case before any previously unlogged, old growth is mistakenly cut,” WildWest and Friends of the Bitterroot said in a statement released Friday.
The injunction would not affect most of the area covered by the Middle East Fork Hazardous Fuels Reduction Project.
In an e-mail, Julia Altemus of the Montana Logging Association said that “hopefully clear minds will prevail in the 9th Circuit.” If WildWest and Friends of the Bitterroot prevail on appeal, then other projects to reduce wildfire fuels could be jeopardized, Altemus said.