Late last week, a federal judge shelved portions of a logging plan on the Helena-Lewis and Clark National Forest known as the Tenmile-South Helena Project (“Tenmile project,” map) until the U.S. Forest Service (USFS) can ensure protections for roadless big game habitat.
Aspects of the Tenmile project affected by today’s ruling include road reconstruction within the Lazyman roadless area that straddles the Continental Divide in the Helena National Forest.
“Frankly, I’m surprised we got to this point,” said Matthew Bishop, an attorney with the Western Environmental Law Center representing the groups. “Keeping the skidders, earthmovers, and bulldozers out of the Lazyman roadless area to preserve big game habitat and the biological integrity and value of this area didn’t seem like a big ask – especially since it’s in line with the forest plan and enjoys broad public support.”
“There is a long history of public support for preserving Helena’s two closest inventoried roadless areas – Lazyman and Jericho Mountain – dating back to the 1970s,” said Doug Powell, a board member of Helena Hunters and Anglers Association.
After submitting extensive comments, meeting with USFS personnel about its concerns, and exhausting all available options and remedies, the sportsmen’s groups pursued this civil action as a last resort in order to protect the biological integrity and habitat in the two roadless areas.
The Lazyman Gulch roadless area was included in prior Congressional wilderness bills and would be protected as wilderness today if not for a 1988 pocket veto by President Reagan. The value of this rare, undisturbed forested area for wildlife, a travel corridor and biological reserve, as well as for human recreation is high and increasing. The plaintiff groups generally support the greater Tenmile project as it pertains to wildfire risk abatement, but the court agreed that USFS’ authorization of logging and road reconstruction in the two roadless areas goes too far.
Notably, the broad-based Tenmile-South Hills Helena Collaborative analyzed and provided input to the USFS and recommended not using mechanized equipment for logging in the Lazyman roadless area, with the exception of private land buffers. USFS ignored this recommendation as well as the sportsmen’s.
“We have worked hard to secure protections for these two roadless areas for many decades and remain committed to ensuring the Forest Service properly manages these roadless lands for big game and other wildlife species,” said Bill Orsello, board member of Helena Hunters and Anglers.
“Montana hunters know that hiding cover and intact landscape connectivity are critical components for quality big game habitat in the Divide landscape west of Helena,” said Montana Wildlife Federation Program and Partnership Director Marcus Strange. “Protecting this roadless area reaffirms this and backs up decades of studies which demonstrate that habitat like this is critical if elk are to thrive on public lands.”
“The implications of the Forest Service’s actions set a precedent that extend far beyond the borders of the Helena-Lewis and Clark National Forest,” said Gayle Joslin, board member of Helena Hunters and Anglers Association. “We are committed to assuring that untrammeled roadless areas continue to provide for wildlife, and opportunities for sportsmen and women and the general public. Intact roadless areas are essential for all of us, as well as the landscape, both immediately and in the long term.”
“Properly defining and managing for big game habitat will be a key issue for the Forest Service during the upcoming Forest Plan revision process,” said Tom Puchlerz, President of Montana Wildlife Federation. “Hunting organizations look forward to working with the Forest Service to conserve the priceless wildlife habitat found on our national forests.”