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Hebgen Lake

An aerial view shows Hebgen Lake near West Yellowstone.

LARRY MAYER, Gazette Staff

Two Montana conservation groups are suing to halt a proposed logging project north of Hebgen Lake that abuts the western edge of Yellowstone National Park.

The project, proposed by Custer Gallatin National Forest, would log or thin about 5,600 acres.

"It's unfortunate but not surprising given who filed, and they file on all of our projects," said Jason Brey, Hebgen District ranger. "It does hold up some very important work related to fuels reduction and wildlife habitat."

Native Ecosystems Council and Alliance for the Wild Rockies filed the lawsuit in federal District Court in Missoula on Tuesday. 

The Forest Service has touted the project as a way to better protect about 500 homes, a public campground, roads and power lines in the area. The work was also designed to enhance aspen and whitebark pine stands deeper in the forest on upper Tepee Creek Road, which is an inventoried roadless area. Around Rainbow Point Campground, one of the busiest in the Northern Region, tree thinning is meant to reduce human-grizzly bear encounters. 

Under the plan about 3,610 acres would be harvested, and 2,060 acres will be thinned. Fifteen miles of temporary road would be constructed. Work began on the project in 2011. It is expected that completion may take eight to 12 years.

At the basis of the conservation group's lawsuit is a challenge to the implementation of Amendment 51 to the Gallatin National Forest Plan.

"In general, the primary reason for this proposed amendment is to remove or correct outdated, ineffective or unnecessary direction from the Gallatin Forest Plan," Brey said. 

The plaintiffs argue that the Forest Service implemented the amendment in 2015 to "get around existing, legally enforceable protections for wildlife and endangered ecosystems," according to their email. Implementation of the amendment "modified 56 goals and standards in the Forest Plan."

One of those goals was to "'provide habitat for viable populations of all indigenous wildlife species and for increasing populations of big game animals,'" said Sara Jane Johnson, director of Native Ecosystems Council, in the email. "This was the only provision requiring viable wildlife populations, and now it is gone."

The amendment also removed requirements for hiding cover for elk, protection of old growth habitat and animals like lynx that rely on such forests, the plaintiffs contend. The groups also argue that logging would increase sediment in streams vital to native cutthroat trout in Tepee Creek, harm a calving area for Yellowstone bison and could give invasive weeds a foothold.

"If the Forest Service wants to launch a project that covers a whopping 73,250 acres, log nine square miles, and bulldoze in 15.6 miles of new road on the very borders of the nation’s first National Park in some of the most important wildlife migration corridors in the country, it must write a full Environmental Impact Statement,” said Michael Garrity, of the Alliance for the Wild Rockies, in an email. “That way, all of the impacts are fully considered and the public gets a chance to fully understand the ramifications of such a large project in such an ecologically sensitive area that is home to endangered and threatened species."

The groups also contend the Forest Service failed to consider the cumulative impacts of the logging with its nearby Lonesome Wood 2 project along the opposite shore of Hebgen Lake.

"We believe we've considered the effects of both projects," Brey said. 

Proceeding with the project would violate national forest acts as well as the Endangered Species Acts, the lawsuit argues in seeking a declaration that the project or Amendment 51 violate the law. 

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