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Montana Homeowners Battle Forest Health (Timber Removal) Delay Demand By Environmental Groups

William Perry Pendley   By William Perry Pendley, President and Chief Operating Officer of Mountain States Legal Foundation

DENVER, CO. - Two Montanans have urged the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit to reject a motion to stay a July 2011 ruling by a Montana federal district court that the U.S. Forest Service may conduct a forest health project in an area at risk for dangerous fires.  Environmental groups, which fought the plan for over three years, appealed the district court's latest ruling.  Janet and Ronald Hartman, who live year-round north of Wilsall, urged approval of the Forest Service project in the Gallatin National Forest 20 miles northeast of Bozeman and parallel efforts by landowners and groups that are key to curtailing catastrophic fires that could destroy forest resources, homes, and buildings and endanger the lives of residents, visitors, and firefighters. In September 2010, a three-judge panel of the Ninth Circuit upheld the October 2009 ruling by the Montana federal district court authorizing the Forest Service to implement the project, but ruled that the Forest Service had failed to meet "elk cover" requirements.  In March 2011, the Forest Service satisfied those requirements.

"The dilatory and lackadaisical filings by the groups demonstrate that they are not entitled to a stay," said William Perry Pendley of Mountain States Legal Foundation (MSLF); MSLF represents the Hartmans.

In May 2005, the Forest Service finished the Shields River Watershed Risk Assessment to evaluate the risk of wildfire and insect loss to some 44,000 acres in the Smith Creek/Shields River area of the Gallatin National Forest of Montana.  In December 2007, the Forest Service-after comments from adjacent private homeowners and State, county, and local officials and groups-approved the Smith Creek Vegetation Treatment Project to address dangerous fuel buildups and mitigate the risk of catastrophic wildfire.  The Project will reduce fuel loads on a maximum of 1,110 acres, in 10 separate units.  A local, quasi-governmental group was formed to provide grants to local landowners to conduct fuels reduction projects on private lands.

In July 2008, environmental groups challenged the Forest Service's plan.  Janet and Ronald Hartman intervened in the case.  In October 2008, the Montana federal district court ruled for the Forest Service and the Hartmans regarding all claims except the mapping of key habitat components for elk, which was remanded to the Forest Service.

In November 2008, the Forest Service issued a supplemental environmental assessment and began a 30-day comment period.  In March 2009, the Forest Service issued a Decision Notice/Finding of No Significant Impact approving the Smith Creek Vegetation Project.  In June 2009, the environmental groups again sued.

Mountain States Legal Foundation, created in 1977, is a nonprofit, public-interest legal foundation dedicated to individual liberty, the right to own and use property, limited and ethical government, and the free enterprise system.  Its offices are in metropolitan Denver, Colorado.

Forest Fire in Montana

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