Calling out frivolous lawsuits in the forests

2014-07-02 Ashley Bach

Just about every week comes news of a lawsuit from an environmental group trying to stop a timber project. If you watch the news closely, it can appear like some environmental groups have never met a forestry project that they didn't want to challenge in court. 

The situation has become so ridiculous that many environmental groups themselves have said, "There has got to be another way" and are now working with timber companies and local, federal and tribal leaders on forest collaboratives across the West to get sustainable timber projects going. 

But there are still groups that seem to think that serving as a roadblock is a virtue onto itself, without any regard for the value in a project.

Terry Flores is the executive director of Northwest RiverPartners, an alliance of farmers, utilities, ports, businesses and other river users who rely on the economic and environmental benefits of the Columbia and Snake rivers. Flores' complaint in the her op-ed this week in Capital Press isn't about a lawsuit challenging a timber project, but about a lawsuit challenging something just as important: a federal plan to save Pacific Northwest salmon.

Salmon recovery efforts on the Columbia and Snake rivers are making well-documented progress.

So-called fish conservation groups are blaming the Obama administration for “forcing” them into the courtroom.

It’s ironic. It’s also not true.

Earth Justice, the National Wildlife Federation, Save Our Wild Salmon and various fishing groups are the ones (“plaintiffs”) who have filed yet another legal challenge to the federal salmon plan. Last week they sued NOAA Fisheries, the agency responsible for ensuring protection of salmon and steelhead listed under the Endangered Species Act. It’s déjà vu all over again as they repeat claims they’ve made for years, despite documented progress that includes the most abundant salmon returns we’ve seen in decades.

The lawsuit-happy groups are ignoring the reality in the rivers, Flores says.

These amazing salmon returns and predictions clearly tell us that our efforts are on the right track and bearing fruit, not futile or unsuccessful, as the anti-dam groups continue to claim. And, the public is talking, too: three out of four Northwest residents agree that it’s critical for dams and salmon to co-exist, according to a March poll conducted for Northwest RiverPartners by DHM Research of Portland. By refusing to acknowledge that the hydro system is going beyond what even federal law demands to prevent harm and speed salmon restoration, the plaintiffs show they are out of touch not only with the law but with public sentiment.

The Helena (Mont.) Independent Record went even further in an editorial this week against two environmental groups that filed a lawsuit against a small timber project on 490 acres southwest of Helena. The project is designed to improve forest health and protect the forest from wildfires, which will in turn protect the water supply in a nearby watershed. The project was recommended by a forest collaborative with all the major stakeholders involved, and yet two groups, the Montana Ecosystems Defense Council and the Native Ecosystems Council, just decided to sue.

Here's the response from the Independent Record:

So to simplify the situation we face: According to Forest Service and city officials, the city’s watershed has significant forest health issues and the water supply is in danger from wildfire. To address the problem, a collaborative group was convened. The working group developed recommendations. The Forest Service proposed a project according to the recommendations set forth by the collaborative group. That project is now the subject of a lawsuit by two organizations who weren’t part of the collaborative group.

There are those who would hold that all lawsuits filed by environmental organizations are bad. We don’t believe that. At times, lawsuits are necessary to force federal, state and local agencies to change course, listen to more public comment or do further analysis.

But this is not one of those lawsuits. This is the kind of lawsuit that lends credence to those who claim environmental organizations, like the ones (Steve) Kelly and (Sara) Johnson represent, are simply obstructionists.

With this lawsuit it seems like Kelly and Johnson oppose any kind of work in the forest, because a project this small is not about logging. With its scope and direction, this project is clearly about one thing — protecting Helena’s drinking water system. Why Kelly and Johnson would be against that is baffling.

...Ultimately, management of public lands should be done with ample public participation and collaboration and in accordance with sound science and public need. We feel this small project in the Ten Mile Watershed meets all those criteria.

We hope Kelly and Johnson reconsider their lawsuit and remove that potential barrier to this important project moving forward. It’s time to show the community that collaboration around problems facing the national forest can work. It’s time for Kelly and Johnson and the organizations they represent to be partners with our community rather than adversaries.