Julia Altemus Commentary: “Death by a Thousand Cuts”

The environmental litigants on the Colt Summit project recently stated “You can’t continue to cut more and more of the valley without jeopardizing other values. There is such a thing as cumulative impacts and death by a thousand cuts” thus claiming victory when the judge determined the Forest Service inadequately analyzed the project’s cumulative effects on lynx habitat and sent that portion of the proposal back for further consideration.

But did they have a right to claim victory? Since when is getting a score of 8 percent on a test, an “A”? Prevailing on one out of the 12 complaints is not an “A”, it is an “F”. For the four environmental groups that sued in federal court to claim victory or to state that “shared visions and communications stumbled” – alluding that the collaborative process failed – is hollow and certainly not very honest.

Bottom line, the Forest Service prevailed on 11 of the 12 complaints. It is important to understand that the court threw out the claims of inadequate environmental analysis, or claimed violations of Forest Plan standards for lynx and lynx critical habitat, of INFISH standards for bull trout, of Region One’s soil standards and violations of Section 7 of the Endangered Species Act (ESA) for grizzly bear, lynx and lynx critical habitat. The Forest Service prevailed on all these very important environmental laws.

Yes, the timber harvest on the Colt Summit project is temporally halted while the Forest Service reviews – yet again – 10 years of recorded research data on lynx. The fact is, lynx currently occupy 53% of the Lolo National Forest or 1.1 million acres. The Forest Service knows exactly where lynx are and have been between the Bob Marshall and the Missions. The area is not over harvested, and definitely in need of active management.

Depending upon what the judge says was deficient with the cumulative effects analysis, the response to the court could be as simple as a better display of existing information, or the court may establish an expectation for lynx cumulative effects analysis that is difficult to meet.

In the meantime, road and culvert restoration work will continue on the 2,000-acre project. However, the claim from the four environmental litigants that the project was approved by the Forest Service after the fact, is troubling. That somehow, collaboration among diverse interests, “…wasn’t a meaningful collaborative process.” The claim goes on to say, “It’s so important to have a diverse group of interests at the table and to have it be balanced.” And, “maybe the table just wasn’t big enough.”

The fact is, those that choose to collaborate are extremely aware of the importance of having diverse interests represented at the table to achieve balance, thus making room for all that choose to participate in the collaborative process. The plaintiffs in the Colt Summit case simply chose not to collaborate. They were asked several times and declined. Instead of choosing to be part of the solution, they opted to be part of the problem. One could ask why? One answer is, finding solutions to complex environmental issues, including the economics of timber harvest and the social values associated with forest management, is work. Successful collaborators have the ability to stretch beyond their comfort zone, and focus on achieving interest-based consensus and not get hung-up on long-held positions.
The environmental groups worry about the cumulative effects the project would have on lynx. What about the cumulative effects, of shutting down the project, to those that work in the forest products industry and the small businesses and local communities that rely on that industry? Since 1990, litigation in Region One has directly lead to the closure of 28 sawmills in Montana and the loss of roughly 3,300 direct jobs and 6,900 indirect jobs. Now that, is death by a thousand cuts.

Julia Altemus writes on behalf of the Montana Wood Products Association.

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