Judge to decide fate of Flathead National Forest plan

May 30—MISSOULA — The fate of a long-term management plan for the Flathead National Forest is in the hands of a federal judge after attorneys for environmental groups and the government squared off in U.S. District Court in Missoula on Thursday.

Groups including WildEarth Guardians, the Swan View Coalition and Friends of the Wild Swan are challenging a management plan that the U.S. Forest Service adopted in 2018, arguing it allows for many more miles of roads throughout the forest, boosting the timber industry but posing increased threats to grizzly bears, bull trout and Canada lynx. The plan could guide the management of the 2.4 million-acre forest for decades to come.

The old management plan included a 1995 provision known as Amendment 19, which required the Forest Service to systematically remove roads that encroach on grizzly habitat and culverts that hinder bull trout through washouts and water sedimentation. Both animals are listed as threatened under the Endangered Species Act.

The new plan replaces Amendment 19 with a new standard, requiring the Forest Service to keep the "total motorized route density" within the forest at 2011 levels — when the local grizzly population was considered recovered. But the environmental groups allege that, when making those calculations, the Forest Service is playing fast and loose with the definition of an intact road.

Amendment 19 called for "decommissioning" roads, a process that could involve tearing out culverts, reshaping the road's surface and scattering debris or planting new vegetation along the route. The new plan calls for making roads "impassable" by blocking the first 50 to 300 feet to motorized traffic.

The environmental groups say that's a flawed definition — a loophole — that would allow old roads to remain in place throughout the forest while hundreds of new miles of roads are built.

"Now a road does not have to count if only the first 50 feet is inaccessible. That is a huge change," Earthjustice attorney Tim Preso said in court Thursday. "We know that it's going to leave intact roads in the forest behind minimal barriers."

THE ENVIRONMENTAL groups also point to surveys they have conducted indicating many visitors illegally use motorized vehicles on closed forest roads. Preso said bears learn to associate all roads with human activity, and an increase in human-bear conflicts would inevitably lead to more of the animals being killed.

"It's well established that grizzly bears avoid closed roads as well as open roads," he said. "Closed roads displace bears."

Preso also asserted roads are being built in the Flathead National Forest at 20 times the rate of construction before 2019.

"That could result in 500 new miles of road over the next 15 years at that pace," he said.

Marla Fox, an attorney for WildEarth Guardians, alleged the Forest Service and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service "failed to consider best available science" when writing a biological opinion that supports the new forest management plan.

Government attorney Frederick Turner, meanwhile, argued the new plan "incorporates new science," strikes an appropriate balance between recreation and conservation interests, and provides "as much if not more protections for grizzly bears."

"The implication of the plaintiffs is that the agencies are walking away from protection of the bears, and that's simply not true," Turner said.

Of the new formula for managing road density, he added, "The standard of 'no net increase' will still be in place."

Turner noted the grizzly population has rebounded over the years, far surpassing the roughly 390 bears that the old management plan called for the forest to sustain.

"The population is doing just fine in this area and we do not need to stick to overrestrictive measures" to protect the bears, Turner said.

Preso, the Earthjustice attorney, balked at that argument, saying the grizzlies are resurgent precisely because of conservation tools like Amendment 19.

"Of course, the improved condition of the grizzly bear is the result of the improved habitat security provided under Amendment 19," Preso said. "And now they're pulling the rug out from under that."

REGARDING THE bull trout population, which remains critically low, Turner noted the new plan requires officials to inventory every culvert in the forest every six years and make any needed improvements.

"If the Forest Service finds a culvert that's in disrepair," he said, "it will either be repaired or be removed."

Since the new plan was finalized in 2018, Flathead National Forest officials have proposed adding or reopening at least 69.8 miles of roads in prime grizzly and bull trout habitat, the Hungry Horse News reported. The forest also has increased its timber yield, selling about 47.3 million board feet from harvests covering about 3,700 acres. That's about 17 million more board feet than it has sold in past years, even without the new roads.

The environmental groups are asking U.S. District Judge Donald Molloy for a "partial vacature" of the management plan, which could send the disputed provisions back to the federal agencies' drawing board. The government is asking to keep the plan, as well as the Fish and Wildlife Service's biological opinion, intact.

If Amendment 19 is restored, Forest Service officials would have their work cut out for them decommissioning more roads.

"In order to fully meet Amendment 19 numeric objectives for all three measures of motorized access density ... an additional 518 miles of roads would need to be reclaimed," the new plan states. "This total includes up to about 400 miles of roads on lands acquired through the Montana Legacy Project and about 57 miles of trails where wheeled motorized use would no longer be allowed unless site-specifically amended."

The Montana Legacy Project involved land the Forest Service acquired from the Plum Creek Timber Co. in the Swan Valley several years ago in one of the largest land deals in U.S. history. The company, however, harvested most of the sellable timber from those lands, and it will take decades for the trees to regrow.

Assistant editor Chad Sokol may be reached at 406-758-4439 or csokol@dailyinterlake.com.