The Flathead National Forest released its Draft Environmental Impact Statement last week, moving one step closer to finalizing a 15-year logging and fire mitigation project in the Swan Valley. But critics say the Mid-Swan project, which covers an area larger than Flathead Lake, violates federal law due to the project's lack of specificity.
When the U.S. Forest Service releases documents assessing the impact of its proposed projects, it gives the public information about where the project will take place; and within that boundary, the locations of particular actions such as timber sales and stream restoration. But those projects typically take place on about 3,000 to 7,000 acres.
Keith Hammer, Executive Director of the Swan View Coalition says the recently released draft environmental impact statement for the 174,000-acre Mid-Swan project, which stretches from south of Swan Lake to Condon, lacks that specificity.
"What they’re saying in this EIS is ‘Well, sometime over the next 15 years, we’re going to do something over this huge … chunk of landscape. But we’re not going to tell you where we’re going to do it, and just when and how, until later, after you’ve already missed the opportunity to go to court to stop it."
The Flathead National Forest is proposing commercial logging for between 18,000 to 40,000 acres, and up to 13,000 acres of prescribed burns. It’s also looking to build between 7 and 49 miles of potentially permanent roads. The proposal calls for decommission around 44 miles of existing roadways.
To be clear, the Flathead National Forest is providing maps showing where it plans to carry out these activities. Hammer says the maps outline large color-coded chunks of landscape lacking site-specific details. He says those details would show the public whether a timber sale could happen down the road or five miles away. He says the public needs those details now during the Mid-Swan comment period.
Joe Krueger with the Flathead National Forest says it’s not unusual for the Forest Service to propose general activities on large swaths of land and wait until after the public has provided comment to release details on site-specific work like timber sales or prescribed burns. He says the Forest Service will provide more specifics to the public each year before work begins.
"Throughout the 15 years, you know, every year before we begin: Here’s what we’re proposing this coming year, here’s the activities out there and there'll be a whole back-and-forth public," Krueger said. "That will be after the NEPA process, of course."
In the draft EIS, the Forest Service says that back-and-forth will be informal and that, "It needs to be clearly understood that public engagement is not intended to 're-scope' or re-analyze potential environmental effects." Kruger says the Flathead National Forest is proposing this landscape-scale project in order to speed fuel reduction work that he says will mitigate severe wildfires.
Keith Hammer with the Swan View Coalition says this scale of project doesn’t give the public enough information to effectively object to specific work within it.
"That’s how the public is put at a tremendous disadvantage — and an unlawful one, according to the courts in Alaska."
Hammer is referring to a 1.8 million-acre project the Forest Service proposed in southeast Alaska. The Anchorage District Court ruled earlier this year that the project violated the National Environmental Policy Act, or NEPA, because the Forest Service relied on large general areas where it wanted to conduct logging.
Tom Waldo with Earthjustice litigated the case. He says instead of providing general outlines of where thousands of acres of logging could take place on a map, federal law requires the Forest Service to let the public know where specific cuts are going to take place.
"So there’s a wide variety of different kinds of habitat that affects different species differently; you know - big trees, small trees, old growth, young growth, high elevation, low elevation, streams, wetlands, soil," Waldo said. "All of those things matter. They all vary a lot across the landscape."
The federal court threw out the Alaska project because it lacked that level of detail. Krueger with the Flathead National Forest says if the public thinks the draft EIS for the Mid-Swan project is lacking that information, they should comment before the deadline on October 13.
Hammer says if the Flathead National Forest doesn’t provide that extra detail by the time it finalizes the project, the Swan View Coalition is likely to sue based on the same argument that led to the ruling in Southeast Alaska.