HELENA, Mont. — The U.S. Forest Service has made no decision yet whether it will appeal a judge’s ruling that halted a plan to log thousands of acres of burned timber in a national forest in Montana, the agency said Tuesday.
Environmentalists, meanwhile, urged the agency to forgo any further court appeals and reopen the Forest Service plan to additional public comment.
“I hope what will happen now is that the agency will really take the words of the judge to heart and do the right thing,” said Jennifer Ferenstein of Missoula, Mont., national president of the Sierra Club. “First and foremost, the Forest Service should go back and look at its project and take the time to listen to the public.”
Heidi Valetkevitch, spokeswoman for the U.S. Forest Service in Washington, D.C., said the agency planned to meet with its attorneys to review Monday’s decision by U.S. District Judge Donald Molloy of Missoula, and would decide later whether to pursue an appeal with the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in San Francisco.
A coalition of environmental groups filed suit in federal court last month after the director of the Forest Service and a U.S. Department of Agriculture undersecretary approved the contentious plan for the Bitterroot National Forest, a 1.6 million-acre stretch of public land along the Montana-Idaho border.
The Forest Service maintains its proposal on about 45,000 acres of the Bitterroot would improve the health of the forest, 307,000 acres of which was scorched by wildfires in 2000. In addition to salvaging dead and dying trees that were burned in 2000, the plan calls for closing logging roads and planting new trees.
Environmental groups, however, argued the project’s approval was illegal, because the Forest Service had violated its own internal appeals process.
In a decision released late Monday night, Molloy agreed, saying the plan could not move forward until the Forest Service complied with its own appeals process.
Spike Thompson, deputy forest supervisor at the Bitterroot National Forest, declined to comment Tuesday on Molloy’s ruling, referring questions to Montana U.S. Attorney Bill Mercer, who represented the Forest Service in the dispute.
Mercer said he was disappointed with Molloy’s ruling, but would not know the government’s next move until he had a chance to review the decision with the Forest Service and USDA, which oversees for Forest Service.
The logging plan would salvage about 181 million board feet of timber. Opponents fear logging will cause other environmental problems, including additional sediment in streams that could harm native fish.
Molloy addressed those concerns only briefly in his ruling, focusing instead on the Forest Service’s decision to bypass its appeals process.
Forest Service Chief Dale Bosworth had said earlier that he wanted to avoid the internal appeal because he believed it would be a waste of time, considering the existing threats of litigation from opponents over environmental concerns.
He and other federal forestry officials said it was a wiser use of time to avoid the appeal and go right to court.
Lawsuits based on environmental concerns of the plan are still likely. The Sierra Club’s Ferenstein said if the Forest Service completes its internal review and still approves the logging plan, her group and others would likely file a separate lawsuit.