Bad Magic in Federal District Court in Missoula

Bad magic drifts through the halls of a US federal courthouse in Missoula.

How else to explain the court’s rejection of two forest restoration projects in the Kootenai National Forest in just 41 days. Judge Donald Malloy shut down Project Blackram on August 17, and Judge Dana Christensen’s July 7 ruling upended Project Ripley.

Lincoln County and the state of Montana have entered into an agreement with the U.S. Forest Service to restore up to 10,000 acres of urban land designated as wildland annually — through thinning and prescribed burning — to protect homes and forests from catastrophic wildfires.

Protection requires a manufacturing facility capable of processing the removed wood fibers – an essential first step in protecting Interface homes and forests from wildfires. The planning of a small lumber mill gave the economically distressed area hope for the future. Those plans are now up in smoke.

Black Ram and Ripley uncover forest planning problems that need to be solved. Congress never intended for the Equal Access to Justice Act of 1980 to become the weapon of choice for lawyers intent on destroying the synergistic relationship between national forests and the timber economies of the rural West.

And yet that is what the anti-forest mob and their lawyers have done for the past 30 years.

Andy Stahl, then a resource analyst at the Sierra Club Legal Defense Fund (now known as Earthjustice), explained the rationale behind the serial lawsuits at a 1988 “Adopt a Forest Workshop” in Portland, Oregon.

“Judges are like six-year-olds,” Stahl told his audience. “They don’t know any more about forests or national forests or Forest Service laws than 6-year-olds do. What they’re interacting with is a good story, a story about land being destroyed. And that’s what you have to tell the judge.”

The Black Ram/Ripley stories are best understood not as lyrical tales of grizzly bears and ancient forests – which is what Malloy and Christensen heard from lawyers hired by the Alliance for Wilderness of the Rockies, the Center for Biological Diversity, and the Wildland Guardians – but as a fact-based story about the rise of Wildfire danger in the 2.2 million-acre Kootenai National Forest.

It took us several months to put it together, but with the help of experts from the Forest Service’s Forest Inventory and Analysis Task Force in Ogden, Utah, we were able to quantify the risk.

Of the 863.6 million board feet that grow annually, 363.4 million board feet die from insects and root diseases. The equivalent amount of gasoline – 266,556,163 gallons – would fill 4,846,457 55-gallon drums.

Black Ram preferred thinning and prescribed burning in a matrix that mimicked historical natural burning patterns. Ripley favored a similar approach to protect the 1,600 homes within the federally designated Wildland Urban Interface. Wind-driven wildfires would burn all of these homes within hours.

The two court rulings send Forest Service planners back to the drawing board — a process that will take several years and is sure to result in more lawsuits.

Congress needs to sever the connection between the anti-forest mob and the Equal Access to Justice Act. Taxpayers should not have to pay the legal fees of eco-terrorists who collect billions of dollars annually from their donors.

Let’s reject litigation in favor of baseball-style arbitration. You submit your best forest protection ideas and we will bring our ideas and three qualified judges who will decide which ideas best meet the goals and objectives of the Forest Service’s nodal forest planning documents.

No more bad magic.

Jim Petersen is the founder and president of the nonprofit Evergreen Foundation

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