The U.S. Forest Service can’t carry out previously planned logging projects on 111,740 acres of land it got from The Nature Conservancy without doing its own analysis first, according to a federal judge.
The case affects a big transfer of former Plum Creek Timber Co. property in the Swan Valley around Lindbergh Lake. The Nature Conservancy and Plum Creek had some private harvest plans developed that Forest Service intended to carry through when it received the land.
But a coalition of environmental groups sued, arguing the federal agency had to treat those projects like any government-issued project. That meant running them through National Environmental Policy Act and Endangered Species Act reviews first.
U.S. District Judge Donald Molloy initially ruled on the case September 25. On Monday, he added a clarifying order specifically blocking future projects until the analyses get done.
Nature Conservancy land protection specialist Chris Bryant said the order applied to Montana Legacy Project lands transferred from Plum Creek to the land trust in 2009.
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“We were not a part of the lawsuit,” Bryant said. “But we will comply with the order. The judge said any future harvest on lands donated by TNC require further analysis by the Forest Service. If they don’t do the analysis, we can’t do any more logging.”
Molloy also denied a request by the environmental groups for special review of wolverine impacts, noting that the wolverine is not protected by the Endangered Species Act.
And he turned down a request by Plum Creek to get formally involved in the case.
The environmental groups involved include the Alliance for the Wild Rockies, Swan View Coalition, Friends of the Wild Swan and Native Ecosystems Council.
In his order, Molloy said the Forest Service shouldn’t worry about the land transfer failing because he had not ordered any specific changes to the harvest plans, “but merely required the Forest Service to take the procedural steps obligated by law.”
“In any case, the Forest Service’s argument regarding the difficulties and potentially adverse consequences of complying with the law carry little weight here, where the troubles complained of resulted from the Forest Service’s failure to follow the law in the first instance,” Molloy wrote. “Had the Forest Service conducted the requisite analysis prior to taking agency action through approving the Agreed Operating Procedures, the agency would not be in its current predicament.”
Flathead National Forest officials said their attorneys were still studying the judge’s order. But they have halted work on two sales in the area involving almost 11 million board-feet of timber.