USA — Five years ago the Forest Service started the public process to thin some trees around and near the community of Elliston, 20 miles west of Helena. Citizens from Elliston commented in writing and in person in favor of the project that was designed to help protect the community from possible catastrophic wildfire. The national forest near the town and residences were starting to show the effects of beetle infestations.
Powell County has identified the project area in its Community Wildfire Protection Plan as a high priority for treatment. Local residents in 2005 were in stages of protecting their private property from the beetle outbreak and fire dangers and encouraged the Forest Service to do likewise on adjacent public lands. The Forest Service proposed a thinning project.
Of course, two serial litigators, Alliance for the Wild Rockies and Native Ecosystems Council, saw an opportunity to harass the agency and make some cash by filing an appeal and then litigating the much-needed project.
Fast forward five years to now. The only thing that has changed is that the condition of the forest is even more deplorable. The proposed project of under 800 acres has again been appealed and litigated by the same two groups. And, apparently, for the same reason harass the agency and try to make some cash for their attorneys under the Equal Access to Justice Act.
No consideration by the litigants is being given to the seriousness of the danger to the lives of the residents of Elliston. In a recent op-ed, Michael Garrity of AWR claims the project area is all about elk winter range and Sarah Jane Johnson of NEC wrings her hands over lack of goshawk habitat if logging occurs. Two other lawsuits come to mind when reading the comments from these two and it sounds reminiscent of the Clancy-Unionville and Jim Town projects, both near Helena.
The Clancy-Unionville project was stalled by litigation for so many years that beetles killed nearly the entire area. The Jim Town project was likewise litigated and eventually over half of it burned in a wildfire. I wonder where the goshawks and elk go when their habitat dies from bugs and fire. Probably to an area that has been managed by logging.
The Elliston area might have been elk winter range at some point, but agency biologists say that is no longer true. The critters just move through on their way to a destination that perhaps has forage and where the trees are not dead. It amazes me that the litigators cannot understand that critters of all flavors prefer to live in habitat with a food source. Thats why so many of them live on managed ranches where they are safe and can eat!
Lastly, how totally disingenuous for the litigators to claim to be worried about the project costing the taxpayers money if it goes forward. This from serial litigators who lead Region 1 of the Forest Service in the number of appeals and lawsuits filed to halt and stall projects like the one proposed for Elliston. The real cost to our citizens cannot even begin to be measured in terms of lost time and jobs, wasted agency efforts, and worst of all the damage done to Montanas once healthy forests that did provide a home for our wildlife.