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"In short, the law was not followed."

U.S. District Judge Don Molloy on Thursday explained why he shut down the Lolo National Forest's 127,000-acre post-burn logging and road repair project.

The issue, he wrote in a 19-page order, is relatively simple.

The U.S. Forest Service cannot claim that water quality in five streams eventually will be improved by the project because it does not know enough about those streams or their ability to cope with sediment, the judge said.

"The Forest Service simply does not know," he wrote. Thus his finding that the agency's approval of the Lolo post-burn project is "arbitrary and capricious."

Earlier this week, Molloy halted work in forest stands burned by four large wildfires during the summer of 2000; his full order was released Thursday. In it, the judge explained how the Forest Service mishandled water-quality issues related to the work.

At the heart of Molloy's decision are five streams designated as "water-quality limited" by the state of Montana - Trout, Ninemile, Flat and Big Blue creeks and the Clark Fork River. The post-burn project, he said, would increase the amount of sediment in those streams.

As approved by Lolo forest supervisor Debbie Austin, the post-burn project calls for 35 million board feet of logging (some burned timber, some green trees), reclamation of three mines, obliteration of some roads and repair of others, culvert replacements and tree planting on thousands of burned acres.

After environmentalists sued to stop the project, the Forest Service argued that while the work would initially increase the amount of sediment in the streams, the long-term effect would be less erosion and clearer-running streams.

"That may or may not be true," Molloy wrote in his order. "Before the Forest Service decides to do anything that will increase sedimentation, even if the proposed action should ultimately decrease long-term sedimentation, the Forest Service must know how much the stream can carry away.

"Without a baseline, there is no way but speculation to determine how the sediment impacts water quality, adversely or beneficially."

Neither the state of Montana nor the Forest Service have yet calculated the "total maximum daily load" - or TMDL - of sediment that the affected streams can withstand. And the state has said it won't get to the work until 2006.

That's the number - the TMDL - the Forest Service needs to know, according to Molloy.

"By deciding to carry out this project in watersheds with already compromised streams, without knowing the exact condition and capacity to cope of those streams, the approval of the Lolo post-burn project is arbitrary and capricious," he wrote. "Consequently, sales impacting these stream segments cannot proceed until TMDLs are established."

Molloy did rule against the environmentalists - Alliance for the Wild Rockies and the Sierra Club - in their request for an injunction based on the Lolo forest's plan to log some timber in areas where there are no roads.

The Forest Service did consider the impacts of logging in roadless areas, the judge said, and that's what the law requires.

"So long as the Forest Service gave this issue a hard look, which it did, then it is beyond my prerogative to compel a different course of action," Molloy wrote.

"The Forest Service's handling of water quality in the post-burn project is a simpler issue," he went on. "In short, the law was not followed." Thus, Molloy's injunction stopping work until more is known about the streams' ability to carry sediment.

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