Anyone who has dealt with a government agency probably has a story to tell about how hard it was to get to the bottom of the issue. That’s especially true in regards to the U.S. Forest Service when politicians like Montana’s Sens. Max Baucus and Jon Tester and Rep. Steve Daines push for more logging, but science and the law halt projects because old growth forests are already overlogged, putting numerous species of wildlife literally in a fight for their life.
The highly controversial Colt-Summit Project in the Seeley-Swan is a perfect example and last week the Forest Service committed a clear sin of omission in trying to blame litigants for stopping the project when, in fact, certain portions of the project were halted not by litigation, but by another government agency concerned about the effects on endangered species.
The story of Colt-Summit is long and complex. Touted as the product of collaboration between a handful of individuals, groups, timber interests and the Forest Service, the proposal contains a variety of projects from road removal to timber harvest. Yet, a number of judicial decisions by federal courts on the Canada lynx, which is listed as “Threatened” under the Endangered Species Act, have derailed logging projects across the West, including Colt-Summit.
According to the USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service, there’s good reason to be concerned about the future viability of lynx. Under “Historical Status,” the agency lays it out clearly: “The Canada lynx once occupied 16 of the contiguous United States …” But today, “small populations of lynx remain in only three of the 16 contiguous states originally inhabited: Montana, Washington, and Maine.” The agency goes on to describe the habitat preferred by lynx as “above 4,000 feet in moist coniferous forests that have cold, snowy winters, and support the primary prey base: snowshoe hares.” The description perfectly fits the Colt-Summit area.
When Colt-Summit was challenged in federal court the judge halted the project pending further analysis of the cumulative impacts to lynx. Importantly, however, the road-removal portions of the project were not challenged, nor did the court halt them. As noted in a Missoulian article (June 24, 2012): “The order does not affect some road reclamation and culvert removal work that has already begun.” The Forest Service even acknowledged that fact in an email (March 5, 2012) stating: “They are aware of the lawsuit but as you know there is no injunction on the planned work.”
Despite the agency’s understanding that the road decommissioning work was not enjoined – and it’s indications to both the press and private citizens that contracts had been awarded and work would begin this year – that has not happened. Instead, in a “fact sheet” published by the Forest Service last week, the agency once again gave the impression that all work on the project had been halted due to the court ruling.
That set off a series of emails from Missoula’s Matthew Koehler, of the WildWest Institute, to both the Missoulian and the Lolo National Forest Public Relations Officer, Boyd Hartwig, seeking clarification as to why the road decommissioning projects were not proceeding. And here’s where the story gets real interesting.
Initially, Hartwig replied that the road decommissioning work was not being done because the agency wanted to “consolidate the work” to minimize disturbances. Only after several more emails did the truth finally emerge, when Hartwig finally admitted: “The Lolo NF is not proceeding with that contract work because of the Fish and Wildlife Service requirement to limit management activities/ disturbance within one of the grizzly bear sub-units within the Colt-Summit project area.”
Kudos to Koehler for forcing the truth into the open, but why didn’t the Forest Service simply admit that right up front to the public and reporters and put it in its so-called “fact sheet”?
In an email cc’d to me, Hartwig wrote: “There was no intention to mislead or misrepresent the timing of the work …” Perhaps that’s true, but sins of omission are real, and despite the pressure from Montana’s politicians and timber industry to “get out the cut,” it’s obvious that concerns over impacts to grizzly bears by another government agency, not the lawsuit, is the real reason road decommissioning has not gone forward.
It’s no secret that citizen distrust of the federal government is skyrocketing these days. And that’s why it is incumbent upon agencies like the Forest Service to tell the whole truth instead falling into the bogus – but politically expedient – ploy of scapegoating litigants.
George Ochenski writes a weekly column for the Missoulian’s Monday Opinion page. He can be reached by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.