Grizzly security deal will allow resumption of logging work
Environmentalists and state forest officials have reached a settlement in a lawsuit over grizzly bear habitat in the Stillwater and Coal Creek state forests.
But for lumber companies now able to resume logging on sales that were halted last year by the lawsuit, the economic damage may already have been done.
Conservation organizations Friends of the Wild Swan, the Montana Environmental Information Center and the Natural Resources Defense Council sued the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service for signing off on a 2011 state habitat conservation plan that covered more than 90,000 acres in the two forests.
That “Stillwater Core” area was designated as grizzly bear habitat in 1996. In the state’s plan, some areas within the conservation area could be opened for four years at a time for active forest management, followed by an eight-year rest period.
The plaintiffs, represented by Earthjustice, alleged that the conservation plan did too little to protect grizzly bears. After U.S. District Judge Donald Molloy ruled in favor of the environmental groups, the Fish and Wildlife Service appealed the ruling to the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals.
The state — which had joined the case on the Fish and Wildlife Service’s side — decided to pursue mediation with the groups rather than try its chances in federal court.
“We just didn’t see that as a certain future, so we ended up with a negotiation that we’re satisfied with,” state forest management bureau chief Sonya Germann said this week. “It allows us to continue with our forest management activities and it’s consistent with the way we manage for grizzly bears and bull trout. It also provides us with assurances that the plaintiffs aren’t going to sue us on the grounds of grizzly bear protections” in the Stillwater Core.
The agreement officially went into effect on Oct. 9. It establishes seven security zones for the bears, spanning 22,007 acres within the Stillwater Core, where any forest management must include extra mitigation measure for the bears.
Motorized activities — commercial, recreational and administrative — will be prohibited during the non-denning season for grizzly bears: April 1 through Nov. 15. During the denning season, those activities and any logging activities are allowed only at elevations below 6,300 feet.
No permanent road construction is allowed within the security zones, and temporary roads and skid trails must be reclaimed to prevent motorized vehicle use once work is completed.
The six timber sales that were active at the time of the lawsuit are all outside those zones, except for about 33 acres in two of the sale areas, which will receive a temporary exemption from the new requirements.
The total yield for the six active sales is estimated at 14 million board-feet of lumber. There were three future sales in the works at the time of the lawsuit, which total a further 8 million to 12 million board-feet.
Germann conceded that commercially operable land containing about 900,000 board-feet of potential harvest has been taken out of commission as a result of the agreement. But, she said, that shouldn’t keep the state from continuing to reach its overall sustained yield target of 56.9 million board-feet statewide.
Friends of the Wild Swan Program Director Arlene Montgomery hailed the agreement as a victory for the local grizzly bear population.
“It maintains over 22,000 acres of secure core habitat on the two state forests,” she said Tuesday. “We identified what we thought were important habitats for grizzly bears, avalanche chutes and different areas we thought provided good habitat. ... [and] there is connectivity, so bears can move through this landscape without encountering a lot of roads and logging activity.”
The agreement also prohibits motorized activity in the security zones during the bears’ denning season.
Montgomery added that even if the state should decide to completely overhaul the habitat conservation plan, the 22,000 acres of core habitat area will remain on the books for the original duration of the plan — another 47 years.
F.H. Stoltze Land & Lumber Co. — which had won the contracts for three of the six timber sale — was hit hard by the lawsuit when Judge Molloy granted the injunction last year.
All logging in the Stillwater Core ground to a halt and the local timber company announced shortly thereafter that it would lay off 10 people and cut production hours back from 80 per week to 60 per week as a result. Stoltze officials at the time expressed disappointment with the environmental organizations’ decision to litigate, a feeling that persists even though last week’s agreement allows the companies to complete timber harvest on the sales.
“To use an old cliche, it’s a day late and a dollar short,” Stoltze Vice President Chuck Roady said Thursday. “We aren’t really going to be able to do anything now until probably the next summer, because the remaining units they filed the suit against are all up in the high elevations.”
The broader trend within the lumber industry doesn’t help, either. Roady said that when the company bid on the contracts, lumber prices were substantially higher. Now, he said, the market has dropped to the point that it’s barely worth logging the sales, and its unlikely that employment at the mill will see a boost as a result.
“It’s not going to change any of our operations now or affect our production or employees,” he said. “We probably would have been able to run two full shifts through that fall and winter had that litigation not occurred.”
He said that for lumber mills, working less than two 40-hour shifts each week becomes inefficient because of the fixed costs such as electricity and the safety costs surrounding heavy equipment operation.
“The sad part is that it’s wasting the taxpayer money by going through the federal court system, and [using] state and federal money,” Roady said. “In the end, we’re glad it’s resolved. It’s just kind of after the fact.”
Reporter Samuel Wilson can be reached at 758-4407 or by email at email@example.com.