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Timber sale moves forward
By MEA ANDREWS of the Missoulian, 11/4/06

An appeals court in Portland has decided not to renew a temporary stop-work order affecting a controversial timber sale in the Bitterroot National Forest.

The decision on the Middle East Fork Fuel Reduction Project near Sula allows the project to go forward - at least until the next court date in mid-November.

The 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals on Thursday refused to renew an emergency, 60-day injunction against the Middle East Fork project. The injunction lapsed at the end of October, and two groups sought to reinstate it.

“The bottom line for us is that we are pleased that the project can get going,” said Ravalli County Attorney George Corn. “It's a community safety project. There is only one way in and one way out of the East Fork,” and harvesting timber in the area will improve safety for residents, he said.

The most recent court ruling is more than disappointing for opponents of the project: It means important habit will be affected, said Matthew Koehler, executive director of the WildWest Institute of Missoula, which paired up with Friends of the Bitterroot to request the extended injunction.

“Clearly, now they can start logging century-old trees deep in the forest, under the guise of fuel reduction,” he said. “The injunction would have held everything at bay” until appearances in court in less than two weeks.

A panel from the same 9th Circuit Court will consider the merits of the original injunction on Nov. 15.

Then, in December, the lawsuit goes before U.S. District Judge Donald Molloy, who will hear the merits of a broader question, whether the original project and bid awards were handled properly.

The 9th Circuit Court of Appeals decided against renewing the emergency injunction “summarily,” after reading only the material from the opposition, Corn said. It is an important legal point that suggests “weakness in their material,” he said.

But if future courts rule the project illegal, or that the Forest Service broke laws in awarding the logging contract, “this will be irreversible,” Koehler said. Some old-growth timber may be harvested by then, he said.

The WildWest Institute and Friends of the Bitterroot sued the Forest Service months ago to stop the commercial portion of the Middle East Fork project.

They claim the Forest Service violated federal law by committing resources to the project before a decision was made, censoring contrary science, selectively excluding the public and not taking a hard look at soils.

The sooner dead trees are harvested, the better for residents, for elk, and for Rocky Mountain Log Homes, said Bitterroot National Forest Supervisor Dave Bull.

Rocky Mountain Log Homes won the contract to harvest the timber, subcontracting with the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation to improve elk habitat, Bull said Friday.

The longer the trees stay in place, the less value they'll have for the company, which wants to get started on the work right away to make progress before next fire season, he said.

“The community there is at risk,” Bull said. “That's why it is such an important project. We do have two more hurdles to clear, but we are reasonably optimistic.”

“We think that the court ruling is a very good thing,” said Corn, who represents a group of residents, governments and fire departments that intervened in the court case, supporting the project.

Koehler countered that even dead trees have environmental value, and that many of the old-growth trees with commercial value are miles from homes, posing no danger to residents. WildWest and Friends of the Bitterroot support decreasing the wildfire danger around homes and cleaning up fire risks, but “not selling very large, century-old trees in important habitat” that are not a threat, he said.

“The merits of this case have never been heard,” he said. “It is irresponsible to move ahead” two weeks before a court hearing on the matter, he said.

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