Elk Smith Project vicinity map. Credit: U.S. Forest Service

Alliance for the Wild Rockies and Native Ecosystems Council filed a lawsuit Wednesday asking the U.S. District Court in Great Falls to stop a 10,331-acre noncommercial logging and prescribed burn project in a roadless area southwest of Augusta.

The project calls for the removal of small-diameter trees and prescribed burning in an area that burned in the Canyon Creek Fire of 1988. In a preliminary analysis of the Elk Smith Project, the Helena-Lewis & Clark National Forest said the area has accumulated concentrated and continuous fuels that make it vulnerable to high-intensity, high-severity fires that could threaten private property east of the forest boundary. The agency says natural and cultural resources in the area are also at risk.

In the complaint, the conservation groups argue that the project would adversely affect the aesthetic, recreational, scientific, spiritual and educational interests of their members and said the Forest Service’s proposal violates the National Environmental Policy Act, the Administrative Procedure Act and the Roadless Rule.

The Roadless Rule holds that inventoried roadless areas like those involved in this project are generally unavailable for timber harvest. The Forest Service has argued that this project is eligible for an exception because it would “reduce the risk of uncharacteristic wildfire effects … expected to occur under natural disturbance regimes.”

In a press release about the lawsuit, Alliance for the Wild Rockies Executive Director Mike Garrity challenged that claim, saying the Forest Service’s own documents show the area has not significantly diverged from historical natural conditions.

In a January press release about the Forest Service’s decision to move forward with the Elk Smith Project, the agency argued that the project would limit risk to fire personnel and landowners when lightning-started wildfires occur in the area.

“The Elk Smith prescribed fire project is all about managing future lightning-caused wildfires that are likely to occur here in the Rocky Mountains,” said Michael Munoz, the district ranger for the Rocky Mountain Ranger District of the Helena-Lewis and Clark National Forest. 

The plaintiffs say the forest’s roadless areas are particularly important because they protect clean drinking water and serve as “biological strongholds” for endangered and threatened species like grizzly bears and lynx that might be present in the project area. They also say the project would adversely impact wolverines, which tend to steer clear of areas that have burned or been logged, according to a study in the Canadian Journal of Zoology

The Greenfields Irrigation District also opposes the project out of concern that vegetation removal will negatively impact snowpack in the area by reducing the shading effect of forest cover. The GID has also argued that the Forest Service failed to address soil erosion and sedimentation impacts that could result from prescribed burning.

The Elk Smith Project has been under consideration since 2013. Alliance for the Wild Rockies and Native Ecosystem Council sued to stop the project last April, and the Forest Service decided to pull it from consideration shortly thereafter. Last August, the Helena-Lewis and Clark National Forest put it back on the table. It’s slated to begin this fall and expected to take five to 10 years to complete.

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Billings native Amanda Eggert covers environmental issues for MTFP. Amanda is a graduate of the University of Montana School of Journalism who has written for Outside magazine and Outlaw Partners. At Outlaw Partners she led coverage for the biweekly newspaper Explore Big Sky. Contact Amanda at aeggert@montanafreepress.org.