Studies show how timber lawsuits hurt local communities


We’ve long known that lawsuits from environmental groups challenging timber projects can be damaging to rural communities and forest health, but now there is more evidence to quantify it.

The University of Montana this month released a study showing that lawsuits in Montana have cost local communities and the U.S. Forest Service tens of millions of dollars. And this week experts testified at a U.S. House hearing about the damage from lawsuits challenging timber projects.

The Montana study showed the Forest Service region including Montana, North Dakota and parts of South Dakota and Idaho had the most timber projects in the country challenged from 2008 through 2013, with 73 projects and 40-50 percent of the planned timber harvest litigated.

The researchers also used as a case study the Spotted Bear River project, which was designed to “cut trees on 1,193 acres, perform prescribed burns on 1,346 acres and thin 660 acres of saplings, producing 7.3 million board feet of timber with an estimated market value of $729,000.”

That timber project, however, was delayed for years by a lawsuit and the Forest Service didn’t win its legal fight until earlier this year.

(The University of Montana study) states there were more than $95,000 in costs to the federal agency from the estimated 1,883 hours of work that Flathead National Forest personnel spent defending against the (Spotted Bear River) litigation. It states that dealing with the suit consumed more than 25 percent of the forest’s 2013 timber program budget. Region-wide, litigation cost the agency’s timber budget $9.8 million in 2013 and $6.8 million in 2014.

Had the project been canceled altogether, the authors estimated the loss of 136 jobs and more than $10 million, based on the direct and indirect impacts from labor income, resultant spending, tax revenue and other ripple effects.

The Daily Inter Lake in Northwest Montana says the study resonates because lawsuits continue to be filed.

On the heels of the UM study comes the news this week that the Alliance for the Wild Rockies is appealing the ambitious East Reservoir Project on the Kootenai National Forest.

That project northeast of Libby would produce 39 million board-feet of timber. That’s a big number during a time when our local mills are finding logs in short supply.

It’s the latest refrain from a familiar song: Once again we have a legal obstacle thrown in front of a project that promises jobs and productivity from a national forest.

Add the East Reservoir Project to the 73 projects appealed in Region 1 from 2008 to 2013, and you can see why there’s pressure on Congress to take some action to cut down on appeals and expedite timber production.

At the the U.S. House hearing this week, an expert testified that the Forest Service is also struggling with lawsuits across the country, not just in Montana.

Between 1989 and 2008, according to a study presented Thursday, 1,125 lawsuits were filed challenging Forest Service land management decisions. The agency settled about one-quarter of the cases and won nearly 54 percent of them, study co-author Robert W. Malmsheimer testified.

More than 40 percent of the cases challenged the Forest Service’s “vegetative management” decisions, meaning logging and salvage programs, and these were also the lawsuits the agency was “most likely to settle,” the analysts found.

“Legal factors are now as important as biological factors and economic factors in the management of our national forests,” said Malmsheimer, a professor at the State University of New York’s College of Environmental Science and Forestry.

U.S. Rep. Tom McClintock, R-Calif., the chairman of the subcommittee holding the hearing, said the lawsuits aren’t just hurting local communities – they are hurting the forests.

Millions of taxpayer dollars are spent on shuffling paper, over-analysis and ensuring process is followed.  We currently estimate planning and environmental analysis are roughly 60% of the costs of forest management projects.  The increased cost of paperwork does not translate into greater benefits to the environment.  In fact, it’s just the opposite.  The greatest threat to many endangered species and their habitat is catastrophic wildfire.  Yet rather than thinning the forest to protect this habitat, we’re spending millions upon millions on extraordinarily long, complicated, voluminous documents that impede our ability to properly manage the forests for the benefit of all species.