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Bitterroot group sues to stop logging on elk habitat, roads in roadless area

Posted at 2:06 PM, Feb 25, 2020
and last updated 2020-02-25 16:23:12-05

MISSOULA — Some Bitterroot residents are suing to stop a logging project in the Sapphire Mountains near Darby.

Last week, the Friends of the Bitterroot sued the U.S. Forest Service claiming the Bitterroot National Forest failed to justify logging and road-building in parts of the Darby Lumber Lands Phase II project.

In July, Bitterroot National Forest Supervisor Matthew Anderson released his decision after concluding the second phase of the Darby Lumber Lands project would have little environmental impact, according to the agency’s 2018 environmental assessment.

Prior to selling to the USFS, the Darby Lumber Company regularly logged its lands, so much of the forest has yet to recover from extraction. The lumber company also built many of the existing roads for ease of access without concern for effects on streams and riparian areas.

When the Bitterroot National Forest took over, it was supposed to quantify the minimum amount of road needed to manage the area, according to its forest plan. But it failed to do so. Now it wants to resume logging.

“The Forest Service has missed a great opportunity to do true restoration on the most ecologically damaged lands on the Bitterroot National Forest” said Jim Miller, Friends of the Bitterroot president. “The Darby Lumber Lands have not recovered from decades of industrial-scale logging and road-building, yet the agency plans to log the last vestiges of intact forest ecosystem in crucial elk habitat and to illegally build roads to get the big trees.”

The problem, according to the lawsuit, is Anderson didn’t explain why some of the proposed logging was needed to improve elk habitat in the area dubbed Management Area 8B, where elk management is supposed to be a priority.

The 1987 Bitterroot Forest Plan requires the agency to apply an “elk habitat effectiveness” standard to forest projects, which also ends up protecting other wildlife, such as grizzly bears and lynx.

The agency didn’t do that. Instead, the agency’s assessment said an “elk security analysis” was carried out, but the document included no explanation of what the analysis involved or what the results were.

The Bitterroot National Forest said removing trees would improve forage to maintain elk numbers. But the Friends of the Bitterroot argues the region’s elk population is already above the Fish, Wildlife & Parks objective, so there’s no pressing need to log. Also, logging would remove valuable cover that elk need to hide from predators, including man.

Too many roads already can allow hunters and vehicles into much of the area, causing large numbers of elk to move down to private ranches. There, elk create a potential headache for landowners and FWP biologists who have to organize damage hunts to move elk back onto the forest.

The lawsuit also questioned the number and density of existing and proposed new roads that would crisscross the entire project site, because the density would exceed what is best for wildlife security. The project area already has about 500 miles of roads, 143 miles of which are within 300 feet of a stream. Dirt roads that close can cause sediment pollution in streams that are home to native trout, including bull trout.

“During and after this project, elk will retreat to nearby private land for the security they once enjoyed in this area,” said Van Keele, Friends of the Bitterroot member. “That will result in a loss of hunter opportunity. Because of increased sediment from the roads, fish populations will be reduced and anglers harmed by this project.”

The Bitterroot National Forest chose to exempt a few drainages within the Darby Lumber Lands project from having to meet the road standard because it would have to close too many roads.

The Friends of the Bitterroot assert that more active roads should be retired rather than building more roads. The project would include the construction of more than 4 miles of permanent road and 8 miles of temporary road in areas that are currently roadless.

“The Bitterroot National Forest touts the project’s restoration, especially road decommissioning,” Van Keele said. “However, of the 39 miles of roads proposed for decommissioning, only five need any treatment on the ground; the rest have already revegetated themselves. And how many miles of road construction are planned? Eleven miles, including an expensive ‘road to nowhere.’ In truth, damaging road construction far outweighs true road restoration.”

Even if the USFS is allowed to make project-specific changes to the forest plan, it’s supposed to provide an explanation for doing so, which didn’t happen, according to the lawsuit.

The USFS doesn’t comment on active lawsuits.

Contact reporter Laura Lundquist at