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Federal judge explains decision to block Seeley-Swan timber sale
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Federal judge explains decision to block Seeley-Swan timber sale

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A federal judge filed a lengthy opinion Wednesday explaining his decision last month to block the Colt-Summit timber sale, ruling that the U.S. Forest Service’s analysis of the project’s cumulative effects on lynx – as required by the National Environmental Policy Act – was not sufficient.

The Forest Service will now have to conduct that analysis before the plan can move forward. The proposed timber sale is located in the Seeley-Swan Valley off of Montana Highway 83.

The 46-page opinion by U.S. District Judge Donald Molloy comes on the heels of a June 20 order granting summary judgment on one issue raised by a host of conservation groups that sued the Forest Service in an effort to halt the Colt-Summit project: That the Forest Service “violated NEPA by failing to adequately analyze the project’s cumulative impacts on lynx.”

The plaintiffs are Alliance for the Wild Rockies, Friends of the Wild Swan, Native Ecosystems Council and Montana Ecosystems Defense Council.

Although Molloy ruled that Colt-Summit complied with lynx critical habitat standards, inland native fish strategy standards and Endangered Species Act protections for lynx, bull trout and grizzly bears, he said it needed more work on the NEPA evaluation.

The National Environmental Policy Act has been a regular stumbling block for Forest Service timber projects. It requires a variety of scientific reviews to ensure a project doesn’t hurt the environment.

“The plaintiffs in this case insist the Forest Service’s cumulative effects analysis for lynx is inadequate. On this point they are correct. On remand the Forest Service must prepare a supplemental (environmental assessment) that adequately addresses the cumulative effects for lynx, and if necessary after that review, an (environmental impact statement).”

The project was heralded earlier this year as the model for a new kind of collaborative forest management, where lumber mills and conservation groups work in concert with the U.S. Forest Service on tasks everyone agrees are needed.

Colt-Summit’s backers included Pyramid Mountain Lumber, the Wilderness Society, Montana Department of Fish, Wildlife and Parks, and two retired chiefs of the U.S. Forest Service.

Molloy’s decision blocked the 2,000 acres of logging and 17 miles of roadwork, but Megan Birzell of the Wilderness Society, a supporter of the plan, told the Missoulian last month that the judge’s finding was not a major setback because of his concurrent finding that the project passed muster under the Endangered Species Act.

“The judge said it won’t have an impact on lynx, but the Forest Service needs to beef up their analysis to better document that,” she said.

The plaintiffs argued that the project area serves as a corridor for lynx that move between the Bob Marshall Wilderness and the Mission Mountains. Molloy said this does not appear to be the case.

The Forest Service relies on GPS tracking data that show lynx do not use the project area as a corridor to travel between the Bob Marshall and Mission Mountains, he wrote, but instead cross Highway 83 south of the project.

“This means the project area is probably not an ‘ecologically critical area’ based on its use by the lynx as a linkage corridor,” according to his opinion.

The Forest Service now must prepare a supplemental environmental assessment, and is enjoined from implementing the Colt Summit project while the assessment is pending.

Reporter Tristan Scott can be reached at (406) 730-1067 or at tscott@missoulian.com.

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