Late yesterday Federal District Judge Donald Molloy put a temporary halt to nearly 44,000 acres of logging in the Bitterroot National Forest based on concerns that the Forest Service illegally shut the public out of its decision-making process for the controversial timber sales.
Conservation groups filed suit yesterday morning after U.S. Department of Agriculture Under Secretary Mark Rey announced his decision to approve the massive sale and exempt the project from administrative appeal. On behalf of The Wilderness Society and American Wildlands, Earthjustice Legal Defense Fund asked Judge Molloy to stop the Forest Service from allowing logging to go forward until it honors the public’s legal right to pursue an administrative appeal of the Bitterroot project decision.
Judge Molloy agreed that federal law clearly requires the Forest Service to provide for administrative appeals: “In electing to disregard the express mandate of Congress, the Forest Service is acting without authority.” Accordingly, the Court found that the groups had “demonstrated a strong likelihood of succeeding on the merits” of their case. In order to prevent “irreparable” environmental harm, especially to threatened bull trout in the Bitterroot River basin, the Court issued a temporary restraining order that prohibits issuance of timber sale contracts until a hearing scheduled for January 3.
Judge Molloy’s order questioned the wisdom as well as the legality of exempting the Bitterroot timber sales from the Forest Service appeals process. “The precipitous action here of electing to take the law into its own hands will cause the very difficulty the agency reasons it is trying to avoid,” he cautioned. “The action taken by the Forest Service here tends to cause the affected communities of interest to polarize …”
As the court was careful to explain, the decision to deny administrative appeals hurts loggers as well as environmentalists. “By its impetuous decision to disregard what Congress requires, the Forest Service is causing further delay in its already languid decision-making, thus impeding the legitimate interests of those who want to harvest the salvage timber.”
The Judge’s ruling came just hours after two conservation groups requested an injunction to protect the public’s right to appeal projects such as the Bitterroot proposal. On Monday, the Forest Service had moved to exclude the public from involvement in what would be one of the largest timber sales in the agency’s history. The Bitterroot National Forest proposes to log 176 million board feet on 41,000 acres.