Ninth Circuit Upholds Moose Creek Project to Improve Forest Health on Helena-Lewis and Clark National Forest

On April 7 a three-judge panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit issued a decision upholding the Moose Creek Vegetation Management Project on the Helena-Lewis and Clark National Forest.  The project restores 2,200 acres northeast of White Sulphur Springs, Montana that have been adversely affected by severe infestations of spruce budworm and mountain pine beetle.

The project treats part of the wildland-urban interface identified in Meagher County’s Community Wildfire Protection Plan as an important area to treat for fire resilience and public safety.

Under the 2014 Farm Bill, Montana Gov. Steve Bullock designated nearly five million acres of federal forest lands that are in urgent need of restoration due to insect and disease infestation.  Through this landscape designation, the Forest Service has sought to implement the Moose Creek Project through a categorical exclusion under the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA).

After anti-forestry groups brought suit against the project, attorneys for the American Forest Resource Council intervened in the case on behalf of the Montana Logging Association, Meagher County, and Montana Wood Products Association.  The State of Montana filed a supportive amicus brief in the district court.  The project was initially upheld in Missoula U.S. District Court in November 2018 and was affirmed by the Ninth Circuit this week.

The Ninth Circuit agreed with the District Court that Gov. Bullock’s designation of five million acres does not require additional analysis under NEPA because the designation doesn’t adversely affect the environment. The Ninth Circuit also agreed the Forest Service used the best scientific information in designing the project, and that treatments would maximize the retention of old growth and/or large trees, as required under the 2014 Farm Bill.

“The decision represents another legal victory for this project, and once again affirms the U.S. Forest Service’s ability to use congressionally-approved policy tools to expedite restoration projects on forests impacted by wildfire, insects and disease,” said AFRC General Counsel Lawson Fite, who argued the case before the Ninth Circuit.  “This should encourage the agency to use these existing tools to implement more treatments that improve the health of our forests, while providing wood to support Montana jobs. Yet more congressional action is needed to address the obstruction and litigation that continues to stall forest management across the region.”