Timber-sale litigation on national forests: What is its true effect?
As Montana’s timber industry struggles to survive in a difficult market, its boosters also are pointing to a perennial obstacle they say is a drag on the industry: Legal challenges by environmental groups.
“Excessive litigation from extreme environmental groups is one of the biggest challenges and greatest barriers to timber management,” says U.S. Sen. Steve Daines, R-Mont. “It takes a lot of time and it takes a lot of money, and what suffers is our forests.”
The issue of lawsuits challenging timber sales is not new. But it’s come to the fore in recent months, as the industry faces increasing economic challenges.
Groups filing the challenges say they’re being cast as a scapegoat for the industry’s woes, which are mostly market-driven.
They say not that many sales are challenged, and that If the Forest Service properly considered timber-sale impacts to wildlife and water, it wouldn’t get sued.
“We’re suing because the Forest Service is destroying habitat for endangered species, so they’re breaking the law,” says Mike Garrity, executive director of the Alliance for the Wild Rockies. “The federal employees aren’t allowed to break the law, just like you and I aren’t allowed to break the law.”
Yet sawmill operators say lawsuits are still a big problem in Montana and the region, because they ultimately lead to fewer logs being available on national forests – and that supply is what mills dearly need.
Litigation can affect the pace and amount of timber sales and harvests on Montana’s national forests, although it’s difficult to measure the true impact.
According to the Forest Service, court injunctions currently block the logging of about 27 million board feet of sold timber on national forests in Montana.
Also, another 120 million board feet of proposed timber sales in Montana have been challenged in court – but the timber hasn’t been offered or sold. The sales could proceed if the suits are resolved.
By comparison, in fiscal 2015 the Forest Service put up 307 million acres for sale in the Northern Region, which includes Montana, northern Idaho and the Dakotas.
But the proportion of timber facing legal challenges is better measured over several years, since some suits were filed years ago and current suits affect timber sales into the future.
For example, if the total board footage of delayed or potentially delayed sales (147 million board feet) is measured against total federal timber sales for the past four years in the region, it would be about 16 percent.
The head of the Forest Service said this fall that only about 5 percent of timber sales are litigated nationwide – although agency officials say the Northern Region has a higher level of timber lawsuits.
Whatever the numbers, timber industry officials in Montana and the Forest Service say litigation has a negative effect on timber harvest volume on national forests.
The agency takes longer to prepare sales, to make sure it can withstand legal scrutiny, and spends money and time defending suits instead of preparing more sales, Northern Region staffers in Missoula say.
Sherm Anderson, owner of Sun Mountain Lumber in Deer Lodge, also notes that under federal law, groups that successfully sue the Forest Service over timber sales can get their legal fees paid by the government.
“They have nothing to lose and everything to gain, because they get paid for it,” he says. “Why should they be able to collect attorney fees for filing these suits? We don’t.”
Daines supports a Republican-sponsored bill that would reduce environmental requirements for some timber sales and require legal challengers to post a monetary bond, which they would lose if they lost the suit. The bill passed the House this summer, but has stalled in the U.S. Senate.
Garrity says the industry simply wants to discourage or block public scrutiny of public timber sales on national forests, and that public input often improves timber sales.
“What they’re really saying is, they don’t want the public to have a say in how government works,” he says.
Forest officials generally agree with Garrity that public input is helpful -- and say the relatively new “objection process” on timber sales helps the agency address concerns before a sale is offered.
Back in Congress, Daines says he hopes a “bipartisan, comprehensive set of reforms” on timber policy can get through Congress and to the president’s desk, including litigation revisions.
Montana’s other U.S. senator, Democrat Jon Tester, says he’d like to see some reforms, too, but that without compromise that considers environmental concerns, a bill is unlikely to pass.
“I can tell you in order to get enough votes in Congress to be able to cut trees, you need recreation, and you need wilderness to be part of that package, so that everybody can say that they won,” he said.