KALISPELL - A federal judge has upheld a thinning project in old-growth areas of the Flathead National Forest that is now 5 years old.
The ruling by U.S. District Judge Donald Molloy of Missoula clears the way for work to begin as early as next summer north of Condon in Lake and Missoula counties. The Meadow Smith project involves about 1,300 acres of old-growth forest and is expected to yield 5 million board feet of timber.
The work, first proposed in 2000, was challenged in a lawsuit by Friends of the Wild Swan.
The group alleged that Flathead officials had not adequately considered the project's potential impacts on old-growth habitat and other cumulative effects. They also claimed the forest had wrongly chosen old-growth "indicator species" in an amendment to its forest management plan.
Molloy granted summary judgment on Tuesday in favor of the forest, writing in his order that the group's claims were "flatly contradicted by the administrative record." He also found the forest's analysis of the project adequate.
Joe Krueger, the forest's litigation coordinator, said the ruling was significant, since it not only upheld the thinning project but also an important amendment to the forest's management plan that established a policy for managing old-growth areas.
The Meadow Smith lawsuit was the forest's oldest outstanding litigation, he said.
"The ruling validates the good that the forest does … and it demonstrates that we are perfectly capable of doing projects that comply with the law," Krueger said.
Besides thinning, the project will also involve a series of prescribed burns to remove dead vegetation and brush and reduce the risk of large fires.