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Flathead National Forest land use plan

Critics of the new Flathead National Forest plan have sued in federal court, saying the public process failed to acknowledge their concerns over threats to grizzly bears and bull trout.

“We got no relief during the administrative objection process,” Swan View Coalition Chairman Keith Hammer said on Monday. “Sometimes I think the intent is to wear the public out and hope they go away. The irony of it is, those of us who stick with it end up being branded as outsiders. We do stick with it, participate in the entire process, get essentially ignored, so we have to go to court.”

The 45-page complaint argues the Forest Service and Fish and Wildlife Service “abandoned key habitat protections for threatened grizzly bears and bull trout without legally required environmental analysis and public disclosure.”

The Flathead Forest Plan provides management direction for 2.4 million acres of public land, including much of the Bob Marshall Wilderness Complex and forests along Glacier National Park. It sets the baseline rules and conditions by which Forest Service staff manage timber sales, recreation activity, wilderness areas and access requests. The complaint focuses on the Flathead Forest’s commitment to limit miles of roads in critical grizzly and bull trout habitat.

“The 2018 revised plan, which replaced former forest plan requirements, asserted that the Forest Service will substantially comply with these road management standards going forward by maintaining habitat conditions that existed in 2011,” the complaint states.

“However, this assertion is deceptive, because the revised plan moved the goal posts on what is required to ‘reclaim’ a road. Under the revised plan, the Forest Service can build new roads throughout much of the Forest, as long as it ‘reclaims’ other roads by placing a minimal barrier that blocks or obscures the entrances of those roads.”

Hammer said the Forest Service is depending on recent Canadian grizzly bear studies showing the bears can tolerate higher road densities than previously assumed.

“The Forest Service is replacing that with road building and logging and trying to call it restoration,” Hammer said. “We don’t buy it and the science doesn’t support it.”

Flathead Forest spokeswoman Janette Turk defended the plan, saying in an email, “We believe we have an outstanding Plan for ecosystems, people and wildlife and we understand people disagree. We’ll work our way through it.”

Friends of the Wild Swan joined the suit as well, which is being argued by the nonprofit law firm Earthjustice.

“The Forest Service should be removing old roads in the Flathead, not building new ones that threaten grizzlies,” Earthjustice attorney Josh Purtle said in an email. “It’s surprising that in this day and age a newly minted forest plan would inflict harm on some of the Northern Rockies’ most iconic wildlife. We’re taking the Forest Service and Fish and Wildlife Service to court to help them see the light on this issue.”

The government has 60 days to file a response, and a court hearing could take place this fall.

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Natural Resources & Environment Reporter

Natural Resources Reporter for The Missoulian.