Opinion: Out of control administrative appeals and frivolous lawsuits against the Forest Service must stop now

Opinion - Out of control appeals and frivolous lawsuits against the Forest Service must stop nowEditor’s note: This opinion piece recently ran as a full-page advertisement in Montana newspapers and is sponsored by RY Timber, Inc. and other Montana forest products companies.

The left side of this photo is the eastern portion of the proposed Cabin Gulch Vegetation Treatment Project located on the Townsend Ranger District in the Helena National Forest. In our opinion this picture vividly shows the difference between reasoned management and inappropriately restricted management of forest lands. (Actual photo is unretouched: Approximate location 46⁰24’49.82”N, 111⁰09’33.71”W).

If allowed to proceed as planned, the Cabin Gulch Vegetation Treatment Project will not only reduce fire hazard danger, it will provide close to 12 million board feet of logs for a timber industry in Montana that is starving for raw material. Locally, RY Timber, Inc. employs 230 people in their Townsend and Livingston mills and contracts with an additional 250 or more people to harvest and haul its timber. In the last two years alone RY Timber Inc. has produced close to 300 million board feet of lumber, made payrolls in excess of $14,500,000, provided $3,800,000 in medical benefits for its employees, and spent over $50,000,000 for logs throughout Montana, eastern Idaho and northern Wyoming. The ripple effect of these expenditures is felt throughout the economy of our local communities and the state of Montana. The Cabin Gulch Vegetation Project represents a vital supply of timber to sustain these sawmills and our employees. The U.S. Forest Service owns 69% of all the commercial forest lands in the state of Montana. Because of politics, administrative appeals and lawsuits over the past 20 years the Forest Service timber program has been scaled back by almost 90%. If this huge supply of timber is not brought back onto the market, and soon, the few remaining high production sawmills in Montana will not have enough logs to run as efficiently; more sawmills will be forced to shut down; jobs will be lost and Montana communities will suffer.

Unfortunately, the Alliance for the Wild Rockies (AWR‐Helena) and the Native Ecosystem Council (NEC‐Willow Creek, MT) filed last minute administrative appeals against the Cabin Gulch Vegetation Project, which in our opinion are misguided attempts to shut down the project regardless of the merit of the Forest Service’s plan, the negative impact it will have on the health of the forest in the Cabin Gulch area, and the negative effect it will have on Montana’s economy. In our view, these two organizations have been successfully stopping Forest Service timber sales throughout Montana, under the guise of requiring the agency to do needless additional studies and analyses. In the past few weeks alone, these two groups have appealed or litigated timber sales affecting over 50 million board feet of timber on six different projects (Cabin Gulch, Fleecer Mtn. Salvage, East Boulder Stewardship, Bozeman Watershed, Little Belt Roadside Hazard and Colt Summit). Montana has been hit hard by the mountain pine beetle and removal of the dead and dying timber is a necessity. Failure to remove this timber unnecessarily exposes the forest to extreme fire hazards and increases its susceptibility to more insect caused damage. Approximately 6 million acres of lodgepole pine forest have already died as a result of this beetle’s appetite. Logging just half these acres would yield enough logs to run every Montana mill for at least 45 years; unfortunately beetle-killed timber has a lumber recovery shelf life of about 7 years. There is not one good reason why our government should be prevented from taking action to reduce this fire hazard by salvaging as much of this timber as possible using environmentally-proven methods. We believe the Forest Service is being held hostage by a small group of professional obstructionists.

In their administrative appeals against the Cabin Gulch Vegetation Project, these organizations promote the theory that harvesting timber will actually increase the severity of future wildfires. How can anyone believe that argument has merit? Though dead trees (snags) are plentiful throughout Cabin Gulch (see picture), the appellants further accuse the Forest Service of failing to consider snag retention in their plan to allow harvesting of the dead and dying, insect infected trees, and even contend that the agency did not analyze the adverse effects that harvesting dead and dying trees may have on global climate change. We also don’t understand how this argument can have any merit! How can fires burning up thousands of acres of dead and dying timber on Montana forest lands be more beneficial for the global climate change situation, let alone the climate here in Montana? Not to mention the fact that as taxpayers we will all bear the cost of the Forest Service fighting these inevitable fires. We also believe there are multiple additional frivolous allegations incorporated into their administrative appeals. We think this shotgun approach is designed to both stop the project and insure that the Forest Service (and ultimately the taxpayers) pays the attorney’s fees and court costs of these groups. Fees are usually awarded if the litigants prevail on at least one of their allegations. Are you still wondering why our federal government is going broke?

We see several options available to Congress to immediately rectify these abuses:

  1. Amend the Equal Access to Justice Act by requiring a cash bond in these types of administrative appeals and lawsuits. Amend the Act further by implementing a loser pay system, where the loser is responsible for paying the attorneys’ fees and costs of the overall prevailing party.
  2. In designated Timber Management Areas already established under the approved forest plans, Congress could exempt from judicial review those timber sales which deal with trees that have been killed or severely damaged by the mountain pine beetle. The authority of Congress to limit court jurisdiction can be found under Article lll Section 2 of the United States Constitution. A similar limitation was recently enacted by Congress when they removed the gray wolf from the Endangered Species List and barred the federal court from any further review.
  3. Scrap the entire Forest Service Administrative Appeals Process and use the more streamlined approach that the Department of Interior ‐ BLM uses for their timber projects.

Any of the options cited above should put an end to frivolous administrative appeals and lawsuits. If you support healthy forests and the over 6,700 forest products jobs that still exist in the state of Montana, please contact your congressional representatives and insist that they make the necessary changes to this broken system of endless litigation before it’s too late.

Ad sponsored by RY Timber, Inc.

We support this ad and agree with RY Timber, Inc. that something should be done to prevent parties from being able to file frivolous administrative appeals and lawsuits against the U.S. Forest Service.

  • Pyramid Mountain Lumber, Inc.
  • F.H. Stoltze Land & Lumber Company, Inc.
  • Pat Connell, Timberland Forestry Services, LLC., MT State Representative HD 87
  • Roseburg Forest Products
  • Sun Mountain Lumber Company
  • Tricon Timber, LLC

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