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(MT) County signs on to lawsuit over forest road closures, Flathead NF

Ed A. Stevens

NAXJA Member
NAXJA Member
county sues over road closures


County signs on to lawsuit over forest road closures
By Jim Mann - The Daily Inter Lake

The Flathead County commissioners have tentatively agreed to join a
challenging road closures and forest planning on the Flathead National

Commissioners Gary Hall and Bob Watne voted to join Montanans for
Multiple Use as a
lead plaintiff in the case at a meeting Monday. Commissioner Howard Gipe
said it was
premature to endorse the lawsuit, which is currently in draft form.

Soon after the vote, County Attorney Ed Corrigan advised the
commissioners that
they should consider the issue again, with a more specific agenda notice
to comply
with Montana laws and to give the public an opportunity to comment on
the county's
involvement in a major lawsuit.

The agenda for Monday's meeting made a vague reference to the president
Montanans for Multiple Use but did not hint at any proposal to join a
lawsuit: "Meeting
with Clarence Taber, Reference: forest health."

Hall said the public will have ample opportunity to comment when the
meet again. But he clearly stated his support for the cause.

"You pick your battles," he said, "and this is one battle I've chosen to
take on. I
believe very passionately in this."

Successful lawsuits by environmental groups have had a huge influence on
management in western Montana.

"To now have an opportunity to reverse those negatives of the past, I'm
willing to
take some hits over it," said Hall, a former Columbia Falls mayor who
was elected to
the commission last year.

"I'm very excited about it," he said. "There's been a lot of work and
money put into it.
A lot of private money, and the county isn't required to put money into

The commissioners could choose to offer financial support, he said, but
that issue has
not been discussed.

Hall said many frustrated Flathead County residents have tried and
failed to influence
management of the Flathead National Forest.

The environmental movement originally did good things, bringing more
accountability to
Forest Service management practices, he said.

"But then, it crossed way over, to the point where they want zero people
and zero
timber harvest," he said. "It's gone too far. There has to be a shift
the other way."

Gipe said he supports the concept, but he wants to see the "final
product" before he
votes to join the lawsuit.

A draft version of the lawsuit lists as plaintiffs Montanans for
Multiple Use, Montana
Gold Prospectors, Montanans for Property Rights, The Flathead Snowmobile

Association, North American Wolf Watch, Owens & Hurst Lumber Co. and a
area business, Leland's Honda, and its owner, Leland Moore. It was
prepared by Boise,
Idaho, attorney Mark Pollot.

The lawsuit will attempt to assert provisions of the National Forest
Management Act,
the Sustained Yield-Multiple Use Act, the Federal Land Policy Management
Act and the
Administrative Procedures Act.

Those laws, according to Clarence Taber, have taken a back seat to the
Species Act and other conservation laws. Nobody has forced the Forest
Service to
meet obligations of those laws, Taber said.

The National Forest Management Act, the draft says, requires the Forest
Service to
manage federal forests in a way that ensures multiple use and sustained
yield of
timber and to maximize economic and social benefits in an
environmentally responsible

The act allows the Forest Service to make "minor amendments" to forest
plans, the
draft says, but it does not allow the Forest Service to make substantial
changes to a
forest plan in a piecemeal fashion through a series of amendments.

Since it was implemented in 1986, the Flathead Forest Plan has been
amended 23

The plaintiffs contend the amendments have resulted in substantial
changes to the
plan, including closing off vast portions of the forest to motorized
access, curbing
timber harvest and discouraging timely timber salvage.

They argue that while the Forest Service has failed to consider the
impacts of 23 amendments, it has also failed to revise the Forest Plan
within a
required period of 15 years.

The plaintiffs say the agency has "effectively revised the plan through
amendments while avoiding the requirement of comprehensive planning and

The lawsuit also claims that the Forest Service cannot close certain
forest roads that
were public right-of-ways before the federal government assumed
management of

Among other remedies, the lawsuit calls for all amendments to the
Flathead Forest
Plan to be declared null and void, and it asks for an injunction
prohibiting further road
closures. It calls for a prompt, complete revision of the forest plan
and for the Forest
Service to take aggressive action in addressing forest health and
problems that have resulted from improper decision making.

Taber says the lawsuit will represent frustrations that are common in
the Flathead

"It's road closures, it's timber harvest, and it's all these amendments
and being way
past meeting the revision requirements," he said.

The Forest Service has gradually moved away from actively managing
forests, he said,
and the result has been forests more vulnerable to disease, insects and

People who have raised these concerns have tried to influence forest
but they have been disenfranchised, he said.

"We've tried to be good citizens," he said. "We've tried to encourage
people to do
things right and proper, to be involved in the process."

Litigation is a last resort, he said.

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