The American Forest Resource Council (AFRC) has formally joined the Kootenai Forest Stakeholders Coalition (KFSC) and Lincoln County in defending the Ripley Project on the Kootenai National Forest.
On November 22, U.S. Magistrate Judge Kathleen L. DeSoto granted the entities’ joint motion to intervene in litigation against the project to reduce wildfire risks near Libby.
“AFRC is pleased to join our county and collaborative partners in defending this very important project to protect Libby and other nearby communities as well as to promote forest resilience on the Kootenai National Forest,” said AFRC General Counsel Sara Ghafouri. “Action is needed because Lincoln County has the most acres at risk from catastrophic wildfire events than any other county in the state and ranks the highest for the percentages of structures that are at very high or extreme risk from wildfire.”
The Ripley Project area is located in close proximity to Libby, just east of U.S. Highway 2 and south of the Kootenai River. The project area is about 29,180 acres, with approximately 7,680 acres privately owned and 2,690 acres are managed by other federal or state agencies.
About 40 percent of the project is in the Wildland Urban Interface, where people and property are in close contact with wildlands. Public lands managers have determined the forests are suffering from overstocked conditions, and forest management activities are needed to decrease the risk of fire escaping the Kootenai National Forest onto adjacent private timberlands, which are intermingled within the project area, and Lincoln County property.
This project will be implemented through four timber sales, including two Good Neighbor Authority (GNA) timber sales administered by the Montana Department of Natural Resources and Conservation (Montana-DNRC). These GNA sales are part of a joint commitment between the Forest Service and Montana-DNRC to work together to reduce wildfire risk and increase resiliency within the Kootenai National Forest.
The Ripley Project is being challenged by a serial litigant group claiming the Forest Service failed to designate the project area as a “Bears Outside of Recovery Zone,” among other claims.
Some local officials have objected to the characterization of the area as habitat for the grizzly bear, since the corridor between the Recovery Zone and the Ripley Project contain around 7,000 residents, the Libby Airport, and a shooting range and is divided by a state highway. Management of this area to support bear habitat also raises concerns because it could potentially have the unintended effect of increasing human and grizzly bear interaction.
The Ripley Project has received broad community support, including from KFSC, a collaborative group representing diverse interests seeking to reach consensus on forest management issues in the area. KFSC’s involvement in the Ripley Project is rooted in the concerns that the people living near the National Forest face significant risk from catastrophic wildfire in the forest remains unmanaged. KFSC members recently responded to misleading claims about the project through a guest opinion in the Western News.
“Now that intervention has been granted, the parties will brief the merits of this case in early 2022, with a hearing hopefully scheduled in the spring of 2022,” Ghafouri said. “We look forward to working with our partners and defending this project so it can be implemented as soon as possible.”