Debate gets heated over timber lawsuits


Lawsuits are a difficult subject in forestry. Some environmental groups see lawsuits as a necessary method, while timber leaders grow frustrated with how the legal challenges slow down what is already a relatively paltry federal timber harvest.

The debate is especially heated in Montana right now, but lawsuits over timber harvests have also been reported twice (here and here) just in the last 10 days in Washington State, so no forested Western state is immune from the issue.

In Montana, both U.S. senators (Republican Sen. Steve Daines and Democratic Sen. Jon Tester) have been holding workshops and town halls around the state the past month to discuss ways to get the federal timber harvest going, not just in Montana but around the country. Tester received some flak from environmental groups for overestimating the number of lawsuits in a radio interview, but the message from both senators was clear: we need to get the timber harvest going.

The lawsuits aren’t just stopping the timber harvests they challenge – they have a chilling effect on other harvests as well.

On Thursday, (Sen.) Daines challenged Forest Service Chief Tom Tidwell on “the implications of fringe lawsuits on the responsible management of Montana’s national forests and highlighted the severe effects that diminished timber output has had on Montana’s economy,” according to spokeswoman Alee Lockman.

Tidwell apparently agreed, responding: “The litigation definitely does impact and it’s not just the litigation. When we get a temporary restraining order, we have to stop and wait. Every time we get a lawsuit, the same staff that would be preparing for the next project, they have to prepare to go to court.”

The timber industry sees the trend firsthand.

Julia Altemus of the Montana Wood Products Association said forest lawsuits elsewhere can raise issues that stall Montana projects.

“One Oregon group filed notice of intent to sue and named four projects on the Lolo and Kootenai national forests (in Montana), as well as forests in Oregon and Idaho,” Altemus said. “When they go to court, that can affect NEPA and timber programs for years. If you have a sale and have to go back and redo your NEPA, you lose two to three years. And you’re not doing anything else in the pipeline, which is lost income, lost opportunities, and meanwhile resources change.”

The editorial board at the Daily Inter Lake in Kalispell, Mont., says Tester and Daines are on to something.

Daines, a freshman Republican senator, is not suggesting anything radical in his proposal to double the amount of timber being harvested. That could be accomplished with relatively little additional impact on natural resources, and might actually result in healthier forests.

But what Sen. Daines is concerned about that Keith Hammer of the (conservation group) Swan View Coalition is not worried about is strengthening the economy of Montana. By doubling the timber harvest, Daines believes he could assist in creating an additional 1,000 jobs in the timber industry. Those are high-paying jobs, the kind of jobs that Montana was built on, and it is irresponsible for the federal government to work against Montana families. No one will tolerate a policy that results in a degradation of water quality or significant impacts on wildlife, but the human factor has too long been ignored, and can’t be any longer.

As Lincoln County Commissioner Mark Peck said, “You’ve got to get away from pitting wilderness against management, as if the two were mutually exclusive.”

…We encourage all members of the delegation to put their heads together and find common ground. Chances are, in Montana, that common ground will have a forest on it, and there’s no reason why we should not be able to use that resource for the good of all.