The 2.2 million acre Kootenai National Forest in the extreme northwestern corner of Montana is home to our state's most biologically unique national forest, containing Montana's only temperate rainforest ecosystem and providing critical habitat for grizzly bear, gray wolf, Canada lynx, woodland caribou, bull trout, westslope cutthroat trout, inland redband trout and over 190 bird species.
Unfortunately, crisscrossed by over 8,300 miles of logging roads and fragmented by over 750,000 acres that have been logged at one time or another, the Kootenai is also home to one of Montana's most overexploited forest ecosystems.
Hopefully the Forest Service's pattern of abuse on the Kootenai National Forest is about to come to an end.
Citing past and continuing failures to manage the Kootenai National Forest in accordance with the Kootenai's own Forest Plan in regards to old-growth forests, old-growth dependent wildlife species, water quality, fish habitat and soil productivity, the Ecology Center has filed a comprehensive lawsuit against the Forest Service in U.S. District Court in Missoula.
"We want to put an end to a pattern of abuse on the Kootenai National Forest that has resulted in decades of unsustainable logging practices that have harmed clean water, fish habitat, old-growth forests and old-growth dependent wildlife species," stated Jeff Juel, executive director of the Ecology Center. "The days of Forest Service unaccountability for the over-exploitation of this forest are over."
"We remain committed to working with the Forest Service, Lincoln County officials and community leaders to find solutions that will put people in northwestern Montana to work restoring watersheds and protecting communities from wildfire through targeted fuel reduction of small trees and brush within the community protection zone," stated Juel, referring to on-going discussions that are taking place.
"However, by ignoring the cumulative effects of decades of unsustainable logging and road building, the Forest Service is jeopardizing any long-term relationship between the forest and the human economic communities that surround it."
Specifically, the lawsuit challenges nine logging projects that were approved by the Kootenai National Forest since June of 2004. Cumulatively, these nine logging projects would:
* Cut approximately 90 million board feet of trees (enough to fill 18,000 log trucks lined up end to end for 150 miles) from 30 square miles (19,000 acres) of the Kootenai National Forest.
* Log over 3 square miles (2,062 acres) of effective old-growth habitat and log another 485 acres of replacement old-growth on the KNF.
* Adversely impact old-growth dependent species such Canada lynx, pileated woodpecker, northern goshawk, fisher, pine marten and great grey owl on the Kootenai National Forest, as well as bull trout and westslope cutthroat trout.
Haven't We Been Through This Before?
The nine logging projects challenged in the current lawsuit follow a 2003 lawsuit by the Ecology Center that questioned the legality of five logging projects -- encompassing approximately 110 million board feet of trees -- on the Kootenai National Forest.
In June 2003, the U.S. District Court in Missoula ruled that the Forest Service was not in compliance with the Kootenai Forest Plan since it had not identified 10% of the forest below 5,500 feet elevation as effective old growth and had not monitored the population trends of wildlife species that depend upon old-growth habitat for their existence. Essentially, the Kootenai National Forest had not prioritized the protection of old-growth habitat to ensure survival of these species, as they were required to do by law.
However, Montana Senator Conrad Burns intervened in November 2003 by attaching a rider -- without public or congressional debate -- to an unrelated appropriations bill that essentially instructed the U.S. District Court to allow these five logging projects to go forward regardless of the illegalities identified by the Court.
Therefore, the cumulative impacts from approximately 200 million board feet of logging challenged in both lawsuits have never been adequately disclosed or analyzed. Put another way, the Forest Service has tried to cut down enough trees from the Kootenai National Forest to fill a convoy of 40,000 log trucks lined up end to end for nearly 350 miles without adequate environmental analysis of the impacts of this logging on approximately one fifth of all terrestrial species in the Kootenai National Forest that depend upon old growth habitat in whole or in part for their continuing viability.
As this most recent lawsuit designed to hold the Forest Service accountable winds it way through the Courts, it will be interesting to see if Senator Burns -- who has received $160,000 in campaign contributions from the logging industry during his Senate career -- looks to again meddle with the judicial branch of our government with another undemocratic rider.
Perhaps if Senator Burns and his buddy Jack Abramoff were to drive some of the 8,300 miles of logging roads on the Kootenai National Forest and gaze out over the 1,200 square miles of the forest that have already been logged, the senator would have a change of heart. Then again, perhaps not.
Matthew Koehler writes from Missoula, Montana where he is director of the Native Forest Network. He's looking forward to the experiencing the minus 45-degree wind chills predicted for western Montana over the next few days.