KALISPELL — In what may be the first shot fired over the bow of the soon-to-be-released new Flathead National Forest land use plan, three conservation groups filed intent to sue over management of the logging roads on the 2.4-million acre forest.
The groups claim the forest hasn’t met its obligations under the Endangered Species Act to protect threatened bull trout due to inadequate management and monitoring of logging roads, in particular the thousands of culverts that can fail and deposit sediment into trout streams.
Flathead National Forest Supervisor Chip Weber said that while he can’t comment on the pending lawsuit, he will say the water quality on the Flathead Forest is the most pristine of any place he’s worked before, including Alaska.
“We have the best bull trout habitat in the whole world,” Weber said. “We have tremendous refuge strongholds, especially when compared to other areas and that’s a net effect of our management.”
Flathead National Forest officials have stated earlier that the long-awaited update to the forest’s land use plan would be released sometime in November. The plan will guide multiple-use management on the forest for decades to come.
The Swan View Coalition’s Keith Hammer said Friday he doesn't expect the Flathead Forest to address the road management issue adequately in its upcoming plan.
The coalition was joined by the WildEarth Guardians and Friends of the Wild Swan in the lawsuit intent filing.
The groups’ notice letter said the Flathead Forest has failed to comply with numerous biological opinions written by the Fish and Wildlife Service during the last 15 years. They said the opinions directed the Forest Service either remove culverts or monitor them annually to ensure they don’t get plugged, which can lead to them washing out.
The groups are particularly concerned with a proposal that would allow the agency to monitor the culverts every six years rather than annually.
“The Flathead has failed pretty much across the board to conduct annual culvert monitoring,” Hammer said. “The monitoring it has done shows that up to two-thirds of the culverts inspected are at high risk of failure. Rather than dedicate the funding and staff to do the inspections and either fix or remove the culverts, the Flathead is looking to eliminate the requirement for annual inspections.”
Hammer said the lawsuit is an effort to force the agency “to live up to the promises it made to the Fish and Wildlife Service and the public.”
The Flathead Forest needs to use the money allocated to it for road management to manage roads rather than provide for timber sales support, Hammer said.
“It’s a never-ending spiral,” he said. “They keep putting road money into timber sales that build new roads. It’s like a dog chasing its tail. … We’ve tried to get the agency to respond to the culvert issue, but they haven’t answered letters or emails. At some point, we have to put them on notice.”
Weber said the Flathead National Forest has been proactive in its restoration efforts, which is reflected in the fact that there are no impaired watersheds on the forest.
The Big Creek Watershed in the North Fork of the Flathead has been removed from the state’s list of impaired waters and Jim Creek in the Swan is about to be delisted, he said.
“The fact that our water quality is outstanding is the sum total of all the active management across the landscape and restoration work that we’ve done,” Weber said.
The Flathead Forest has an active culvert monitoring program that prioritizes restoration according to risk, he said.
“We check our road system and manage it very well,” Weber said. “We don’t have a lot of problems with our road system. … We have very ecologically functioning watersheds in part because of the way we manage our road systems.”
Weber said forest officials expected there would be challenges to the upcoming land use plan.
“You can never write a plan that satisfies everyone,” Weber said. “We expect that there will be objections and lawsuits. We are trying to get it out by the end of fall. We are just waiting for the green light.”