The Forest Service must consult with the Fish and Wildlife Service under Section 7 of the Endangered Species Act about "agreed operating procedures" on more than 100,000 acres of forest lands in Montana's Swan Valley (Swan View Coalition v. Weber, 13-129-M-DWM, D. Mont.).
U.S. District Judge Donald Molloy reaffirmed his Sept. 25 ruling requiring compliance with the ESA and National Environmental Policy Act but withdrew portions of his order requiring consultation and NEPA analysis on "site-specific projects." He noted that at present, no such projects are planned.
"Existing site-specific projects approved or accepted pursuant to the Agreed Operating Procedures for which ground-disturbing activities were underway before the entry of this Court's September 25 Order may proceed as planned," Molloy said in his Dec. 8 order. However, "[u]ntil the necessary analysis under NEPA and the ESA is complete, the Forest Service is enjoined from authorizing or accepting Harvest Plans for site-specific projects on the 111,740 acres subject to the Agreed Operating Procedures, including allowing such projects to proceed by default due to the Forest Service's failure to respond to a Harvest Plan."
Species potentially affected by activities within the 111,740 acres include Canada lynx, grizzly bears, bull trout and water howellia, a plant.
"[T]he Forest Service's argument regarding the difficulties and potentially adverse consequences of complying with the law carry little weight here, where the troubles complained of resulted from the Forest Service's failure to follow the law in the first instance," Molloy said in his Dec. 8 order. "Had the Forest Service conducted the requisite analysis prior to taking agency action through approving the Agreed Operating Procedures, the agency would not be in its current predicament."
Here's Alliance for the Wild Rockies' press release. Scroll down for the order.
December 9, 2014
Contact: Mike Garrity, Executive Director, Alliance for the Wild Rockies, 406 459-5936
Federal court reaffirms ruling protecting endangered species on 111,740 acres of national forest lands
The federal district court in Montana reaffirmed and clarified its September 2014 ruling that the U.S. Forest Service violated the Endangered Species Act (ESA) and the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) when it approved logging procedures for 111,740 acres of newly-acquired national forest lands. The Court’s ruling requires the Forest Service to halt logging until it complies with both the National Environmental Policy Act and Endangered Species Act requirements to analyze “potential environmental effects, reasonable alternatives, and cumulative impacts on those lands” and “comply with the consultation requirements of Section 7 of the ESA with respect to those protected species affected on the lands.”
These so-called "Legacy Lands" in Montana's Swan Valley were former Plum Creek Timber Co. lands which were purchased by the federal government and are now part of the national forest and subject to federal laws that protect the environment and threatened or endangered species. These lands are critical habitat for grizzly bears, lynx, wolverine, bull trout, and a very rare plant called water howellia.
Four conservation groups, the Alliance for the Wild Rockies, Swan View Coalition, Friends of the Wild Swan, and Native Ecosystems Council, filed a lawsuit in 2013 in Federal District Court challenging the Glacier Loon Timber Sale near Lindbergh Lake in the Swan Valley.
"The U.S. Forest Service authorized logging procedures and thousands of acres of clearcutting on these lands without any analysis of how the logging might affect and harm endangered species in the area,” said Mike Garrity, Executive Director of the Alliance for the Wild Rockies. “Of particular concern to local conservationists is the lynx, a rare forest cat that requires large expanses of unlogged area for survival. The Swan Valley is the best potential habitat in the Lower 48 states for lynx, but lynx may be declining in the area."
"The federal court reaffirmed that the federal government violated the law and the ruling couldn’t have been more clear,” Garrity said, pointing to the language in the ruling that “the Court has compelled no substantive changes to Agreed Operating Procedures but merely required the Forest Service to take the procedural steps obligated by law.”
Moreover, in addressing Forest Service concerns that the ruling would enjoin new Harvest Plans until the required compliance with the law has been done, the Court put the blame directly on the agency, writing: “In any case, the Forest Service's argument regarding the difficulties and potentially adverse consequences of complying with the law carry little weight here, where the troubles complained of resulted from the Forest Service's failure to follow the law in the first instance. Had the Forest Service conducted the requisite analysis prior to taking agency action through approving the Agreed Operating Procedures, the agency would not be in its current predicament.”
“The bottom line,” Garrity concluded, “is very good news for the threatened and endangered species that call these lands home, since all commercial logging on these ‘Legacy Lands’ must cease until the Forest Service conducts the proper analysis required by the Endangered Species Act and National Environmental Policy Act and puts in place appropriate protections for the endangered species in the area."