Two groups have filed a lawsuit to halt a Red Lodge-area logging project, approved by the Forest Service this spring, claiming it will be conducted in “some of the best remaining wildlife habitat in the landscape.”
Alliance for the Wild Rockies and Native Ecosystems Council filed the suit in District Court in Missoula on Monday, the second suit they have filed against a project that dates back to 2012.
"It's unfortunate to have to take a federal agency to court a second time over this logging project, but federal agencies have to follow the law, just like the rest of us,” said Mike Garrity, executive director of the Alliance for the Wild Rockies, in a news release.
The lawsuit seeks to halt the project, which was scheduled to begin this spring in Red Lodge, Willow and Nichols creeks. The drainages are west of the resort community of Red Lodge along the northeast face of the Beartooth Mountains.
The previous lawsuit, filed in 2015, prompted the Forest Service to pull its decision and rework its analysis. That resulted in the announcement this March to move ahead with the project, conducting logging, prescribed burns and fuels reduction on portions of 22,000 acres.
The lawsuit comes as the Red Lodge community saw the 46-square-mile Robertson Draw fire, ignited on June 13 seven miles south of town, light the skyline and send clouds of smoke and ash into the community. The human-caused fire is 90% contained, but burned several structures and is expected to continue to smolder in inaccessible terrain on nearby Mount Maurice until snow falls or there is a season-ending rainfall.
In hopes of minimizing the effects of a similar fire to the west of Red Lodge, the Greater Red Lodge Area Vegetation and Habitat Management Project, known as GRLA, authorized commercial logging on 800 acres in Red Lodge Creek and 240 acres in Willow-Nichols creeks. Noncommercial logging is proposed on 325 acres in Red Lodge Creek and 430 acres along Willow-Nichols creeks.
In challenging the project, the groups claim the Forest Service identified its Wildland Urban Interface in an area with few homes or other structures in need of protection from wildfire. The agency defines a WUI as “an area within or adjacent to” a community near federal lands that are at “high risk from wildfire.”
The Forest Service is using the WUI as a way to avoid protecting Canada lynx habitat, as required by law, the lawsuit asserts.
“Instead, the Custer National Forest produced an internal document … that sets forth a new definition and mapping protocol for lynx habitat,” the lawsuit said. This new definition did not undergo proper analysis as required by law, the groups alleged, and also ignores the agency’s own definition of lynx habitat.
An adjacent logging project on state lands has already removed timber that provided wildlife travel corridors, the lawsuit also claimed, affecting elk, grizzly bears and moose. The Forest Service failed to consider the state logging project in its analysis, the groups charged.
In its Final Supplemental Environmental Impact Statement, the Forest Service noted the adjoining state project but said it was outside of mapped lynx habitat and was relatively small in size relative to the size of lynx home ranges, so “no significant cumulative effects are expected.”
Garrity said the "Forest Service arbitrarily changed definitions, remapped lynx habitat boundaries, and erroneously claimed the entire project is in the wildland urban interface to get around legal habitat protection requirements.
“At this point, the only way we can conserve the last best habitat for elk, grizzly bears, and lynx is to once again challenge the project in federal court,” he said.