Late yesterday, a federal judge in Montana issued an injunction that halts nearly 41,000 acres of proposed logging in the Bitterroot National Forest. The ruling was based on concerns that the Forest Service illegally shut the public out of its decision-making process for the controversial timber sales.
The injunction came after the Forest Service moved last month 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.
In issuing the order, Federal District Judge Donald Molloy in Missoula, wrote, “It is presumptuous to believe that the agency’s final decision has a perfection about it that would not be illuminated by interested comment, questioning, or requests for justification of propositions asserted in it. Congress wanted the opportunity for full democratic participation in Forest Service decisionmaking when it created a statutory right to an administrative appeal. Neither the Secretary of Agriculture, the Undersecretary of Agriculture, nor the Forest Service can take away a right the Congress granted or a process Congress demanded.”
Conservation groups filed suit in December 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, American Wildlands, and Pacific Rivers Council, Earthjustice lawyers 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.
Last month, Judge Molloy issued a temporary restraining order that put a hold on the proposed timber sale. The latest restraining order expired today. In today’s ruling, Judge Molloy quoted from his December 18 temporary restraining order: “The action taken by the Forest Service here tends to cause the affected communities of interest to polarize, while the appeal process Congress requires is intended to harmonize to the extent possible the various interests in the decision-making process.” Judge Molloy noted that the right to appeal Forest Service decisions is afforded not only to environmental interests, but also to loggers, local businesses, and community officials.
Doug Honnold, the Earthjustice attorney who argued for the injunction, explained, “The law is clear — the Forest Service must listen to the public’s concerns and hear an administrative appeal before logging our national forests.”
American Wildlands, Pacific Rivers Council, and The Wilderness Society support balanced management of our national forests, but do not oppose all logging on the Bitterroot.