In a visit to the Lolo Peak Fire command post last week, a delegation of cabinet secretaries and Montana’s Republican representatives in Congress made it clear who they think is to blame for the devastating wildfires here in recent years.
"We’re tied up in knots through extensive and ridiculous permitting processes, and frivolous lawsuits from environmental extremists," says Congressman Greg Gianforte.
We’re going to hear from one of the people Gianforte calls an extremist in a moment. He’s the man behind the lawsuit Gianforte is complaining about here:
"I was just over in Lincoln recently, there was a project there that the Forest Service worked together with the community and the county commissioners, called the Stonewall Project. And it took eight years to get that forest management project approved, only to have a single judge overturn it, and now that forest is burning."
The Stonewall project, proposed in 2010, was this May put on temporary hold by Missoula U.S. District Court Judge Dana Christensen. That in response to a lawsuit by Native Ecosystems Council and the Alliance for the Wild Rockies.
"No areas that they planned on having commercial timber sales have been affected by the fire. So you can’t say that stopping logging somehow started the fire," Garrity says.
We asked the Helena-Lewis and Clark National Forest to confirm that, and Forest Supervisor Bill Avey sent us this statement:
"Implementation of the Stonewall Project would have made the implementation of perimeter control suppression tactics more effective. Current Fire activity prevents me from responding any further at this time."
The fire at issue here is the Park Creek Fire, which a lightning strike started on July 14. It has now burned more than 13,500 acres.
There’s a map in this post overlaying the Park Creek Fire perimeter on top of the Stonewall project. You can see the treatment descriptions corresponding to the Stonewall Vegetation Project map here.
Garrity says there’s no science to back up the argument that aggressive logging prevents forest fires.
"Clearcutting and bulldozing new roads doesn’t prevent fires. The Forest Service Fire lab in Missoula has found that the only place logging works to prevent fires is immediately around a home. If you clear brush and have a fire resistant roof around your home, your home is likely to survive a wildfire. Logging out in the forest doesn't do anything to prevent fires. The Lolo Peak Fire is a good example of that. No environmental group has litigated a timber sale in the Lolo Peak area anytime that I'm aware of. The fire in eastern Montana that burned over 270,000 acres this summer burned mostly through grasslands. They didn't have their press conference out in eastern Montana because there's not a lot of trees there."
"We need to give them the resources on the front line, the flexibility, and get rid of the lawsuits, so they can do their job," Zinke said.
Senator Steve Daines agreed.
"If we don’t address the litigation issue, the frivolous litigation from these extreme environmental groups, we’re never going to get ahead of this issue," he said.
The Alliance for the Wild Rockies’ Mike Garrity:
"By definition, if you win it's not a frivolous lawsuit. And courts have the authority to sanction attorneys who file frivolous lawsuits. We've never been sanctioned. Courts have ruled for us way more than they've ruled against us. I think the real problem is Congress isn't doing their job and overseeing the serial lawbreakers or the Forest Service. And there's no penalty when Forest Service supervisors break the law."
Eric Whitney: The folks at that press conference characterized organizations that file environmental lawsuits, or attorneys who file those lawsuits, as that’s somehow helping to finance their organizations. That by filing these lawsuits, that's how environmental organizations are funded. How is the Alliance for the Wild Rockies funded, and do these lawsuits result in any financial gain for your organization?
Mike Garrity: No, lawsuits don't result in any financial gain for us. We lose money on lawsuits even if we win. The attorneys get their fees but we don't get any money for lawsuits. We don't have any attorneys on staff. The Congress wrote these laws to encourage citizens enforcement of federal laws. But again, if Congress doesn't like it, they should make the Forest Service follow the law rather than blame us. That's like blaming the county attorney for successfully prosecuting crimes; that the county attorney is just doing that to make money rather than keeping criminals from breaking the law. Democracy only works if there's citizen enforcement and empowerment over the government.
EW: One of the terms that was thrown around at that press conference was “environmental extremist,” and they specifically pointed at your group and that lawsuit and said these are “environmental extremists” causing harm. Do you accept that label?
MG: Well, we're doing everything by the book. We file a lawsuit and we most often win. So we only win if we're following the law. So by definition that's not an extremist. What's an extremist is a candidate who runs for Congress and body slams a reporter who asked him a question and then pleads guilty. So maybe Congressman Gianforte should look at himself in the mirror before he starts calling people extremists.
EW: I think there’s a popular perception that environmental groups in Montana sue on every proposed timber sale. Is that accurate?
MG: Over the last 15 years, according to the Forest Service’s web site they've met 89 percent of their timber target and their timber target has been increasing almost every year. The Great Falls Tribune had an article last February about all the timber that's available for timber companies, and loggers were quoted as saying they have never seen this much timber available in their lifetime. So it's definitely not true. It's another alternative fact that the Trump administration, Daines and Gianforte are coming up with.
EW: Has your organization reviewed any timber sales lately that that you chose not to litigate on that you that you think the Forest Service did a good job on, or at least a good enough job that it didn't merit litigation to stop the project?
MG: Yes. If you go to the Forest Service website, the majority of timber sales that are listed at different national forest have not been litigated.
I don't remember the last time the Alliance litigated a timber sale in the Bitterroot National Forest. For example. There was a big timber sale near Superior recently, I think it's still ongoing, that we didn't litigate. There was a timber sale several years ago near Missoula in the Lolo Peak area called Butte Lookout that we didn't litigate and we told the forest supervisor that we thought it was a great project. There was a timber sale near the Anaconda Job Corps, that we wrote to the regional forester and told him that was a great project.
EW: I can understand why you would you would just choose not to litigate on some, but why would you take the extra step? What was it about this project that prompted you to call the forest supervisors give them a pat on the back for those?
MG: Well, both projects, after we met with the Forest Service, they explained to us what they were trying to do, and we explained our concerns. They made some minor modifications to address our concerns and we were very happy with the work they were doing on the Butte Lookout timber sale. They were taking out culverts that were blocking bull trout migration. And on the Anaconda Job Corps site they moved the logging closer to the Anaconda Job Corps site. Originally it was planned further away, but they moved it closer to where it would actually help protect the Anaconda Job Corps site from burning down. So we appreciated that the forest supervisor listened to us, and it was a pleasure to work with them. We think when the Forest Service does a good job they should be commended for it, so that's what we did.
EW: Mike Garrity is the executive director of Alliance for the Wild Rockies.