Lolo National Forest officials believe they have answered the legal questions holding up the Colt-Summit forest project near Seeley Lake, which could mean new logging and restoration work this summer.
But opponents of the highly publicized collaborative forest landscape project remain adamant the proposal will hurt endangered lynx and grizzly bears by failing to consider how it fits with other logging work in the area.
“I have found no reason to further supplement, correct or revise my March 25, 2011, decision,” Lolo Forest Supervisor Debbie Austin wrote this week. “I have made the determination that the project’s activities do not constitute a major federal action that would significantly affect the quality of the human environment, thus an environmental impact statement is not needed.”
Supporters hailed the Colt-Summit project as a model of collaboration among timber companies, environmental groups and the local community. It contains a five-year mix of logging, road decommissioning, wildlife habitat improvement, prescribed burning and recreation projects. They are located in a 4,330-acre swath between Lake Alva and Summit Lake, which divides the Seeley and Swan watersheds and provides a major wildlife corridor between the Swan and Mission mountain ranges.
The teamwork was supposed to avoid lawsuits and other delays of U.S. Forest Service decision-making. But a different coalition of environmental groups claimed the collaboration was a sham.
“We didn’t see any evidence the collaborators had any input on this until they came out with an environmental assessment or scoping notice,” said Arlene Montgomery of Friends of the Wild Swan. “The Forest Service brought this project to them and said this is what they want to do.”
The Friends of the Wild Swan, Alliance for the Wild Rockies, Montana Ecosystem Defense Council and Native Ecosystems Council sued the Forest Service over the timber sale portion of the project. In 2011, U.S. District Judge Don Molloy ruled against the environmental groups on 11 of their 12 arguments. But he agreed with the 12th point that the Forest Service needed to better explain how it was handling lynx concerns.
“There’s more research data from collared lynx up there than any place else in the country,” said Gordy Sanders of Pyramid Mountain Lumber, one of the participants in crafting the project. “They know where corridors need to be, and the Forest Service had built that into their analysis. The judge sided with them on all that.”
Colt-Summit would provide Pyramid Mountain Lumber about two months’ worth of logs for its mill, Sanders said. It also would put a lot of local loggers and contractors to work on hazardous fuels treatments, road removal or repair, and other forest jobs.
“They have always tried to pursue projects that would essentially pay for themselves in a goods-for-services approach,” Sanders said. “We haven’t got to a contract stage yet, but I understand the plan is to have the rest of the project advertised as soon as March or April. That means no activity this spring, but this summer is when activity could begin.”
Western Environmental Law Center attorney Matt Bishop, who represented the project protesters, said he was disappointed Austin simply reaffirmed her old decision instead of issuing a new environmental assessment. But he said he needed time to review her decision before planning further legal action.
Reporter Rob Chaney can be reached at 523-5382 or at email@example.com.