HELENA – A Bozeman man on Tuesday sued Gov. Steve Bullock and some top administration officials, accusing them of violating the state Constitution by nominating 5.1 million acres of U.S. Forest Service land for restoration without giving the public a chance to participate.
The proposed Montana forest restoration program could include some logging, but by no means is all logging, the Bullock administration said.
Steve Kelly, a Bozeman artist and former congressional candidate, filed the complaint in Gallatin County District Court. He also named Bullock’s natural resources adviser Tim Baker, state Natural Resources and Conservation Director John Tubbs and state forester Bob Harrington in the lawsuit.
He contended that Bullock and the other officials violated the public’s right to know and the public’s right to participate in the Montana Constitution.
“I have a responsibility to vigorously defend the rights of citizens protected by the Montana Constitution,” Kelly said. “When government officials forget to follow their oath of office, or simply choose to act in a way that tramples the constitutional rights of all Montanans, individual citizens must be vigilant. It’s what citizenship is all about.”
Kelly asked the court to set aside Bullock’s recommendation and declare it void.
He also asked the court to send the recommendations back to Bullock and the Department of Natural Resources and Conservation and order officials to conduct properly noticed public meetings that meet the constitutional standards.
The complaint is aimed at Bullock’s recommendation to nominate 5.1 million acres of national forest land in Montana for restoration, under the new farm bill. The bill allows governors to nominate landscapes affected by insects and disease.
Kelly said Bullock’s recommendation to the U.S. Secretary of Agriculture “was hatched by seven people over the course of five conference calls that deliberately avoided any opportunity for public input.”
In response, Bullock defended the plan as “the product of collaboration by conservationists and forest rangers, county commissioners and the wood products industry.”
“We proposed a responsible plan that seeks to break the gridlock that has, for too long, prohibited thoughtful management of our federal lands and had disastrous impacts on the health of our forests,” he said. “While we’re only at the beginning of this conversation, Montanans can be excited about healthier forests, improved watersheds, habitat and fisheries, increased recreational opportunities and good paying jobs.”
The governor’s office said the farm bill gave governors only 60 days to nominate areas. If the secretary of agriculture designates these lands, forest management will follow as part of a planning process “with rigorous science and allowing for full public involvement,” Bullock’s office said.
The administration said the priority landscapes proposed by Bullock were the product of collaborative discussions with representatives from the logging and wood products industry, conservation groups including Trout Unlimited, the Greater Yellowstone Coalition, the Yaak Valley Forest Council and the Blackfoot Challenge, county commissioners from affected counties, and national forest supervisors and district rangers.
Kelly, who is not an attorney, filed the complaint himself without using a lawyer in what’s known as a pro se complaint.
“I just didn’t want the clock to run out and get by without a challenge,” he said in an interview. “I’m a citizen filing a pro se complaint. I just want to know if the Constitution is still working.”