I never quite got the point of the Alliance for the Wild Rockies’ lawsuit challenging the U.S. Forest Service’s Mission Restoration Project.
It’s not that the Montana-based environmental organization’s legal action was entirely frivolous. The Alliance is a serious organization with admirable goals, and the lawsuit seemed to be consistent with its mission.
But — why was the Alliance so late to the party? The suit was filed more than a year after the project was approved following 4 years of collaborative efforts to reach agreements. What is the Alliance’s interest in Washington? It seems like there’s more than enough to do in Montana. How was the suit funded? Was it about logging? Was it about grizzly bears? Was it about roads? Was it about the Forest Service process? All of the above?
And why the tone-deaf attitude toward the Methow Valley community, which the Alliance basically characterized in its communications as naive or complicit with the “lawless” Trump administration for going along with the project? More about that later.
A federal judge apparently didn’t see much point in the lawsuit either. Judge Salvador Mendoza Jr. of the U.S. District Court for Eastern Washington last week granted the Forest Service’s request for a summary judgment and tossed the suit out “with prejudice,” meaning it can’t be filed again (although there is a possibility for appeal). Summary judgment is about as brutal as it gets if you are on the losing side in the courtroom. It means your case was, in the judge’s opinion, so lacking in merit or substance that it wouldn’t even be allowed to go any further.
The Mission project is a multi-faceted, long-term forest restoration plan that covers more than 50,000 acres including the Libby Creek and Buttermilk Creek drainages. It was designed with the participation of the North Central Washington Forest Health Collaborative, which includes the Forest Service, conservation groups and the timber industry among its 24 members. Several conservation groups filed briefs in court supporting the Forest Service in the action by the Alliance.
In its lawsuit, the Alliance argued that the project is complex enough that the Forest Service should be ordered to do a detailed environmental impact statement. I won’t get into all the details of the lawsuit and the Forest Service’s response — those have been documented. But I was surprised that the Alliance’s suit made such a big deal about the potential loss of grizzly bear habitat — in an area that hasn’t seen grizzlies in anyone’s memory, and is far away from the range of any existing grizzlies in the region. The federal government earlier this year nixed a plan to reintroduce the bears into the North Cascades environment. The judge brusquely swatted the Alliance’s bear argument aside. Grizzlies are relevant in Montana. Here? Not so much.
What the Alliance seemed not to recognize or acknowledge is how important forest fire prevention is to this community, and the role the Mission Project is expected to play in that effort.
The Mission Project has disciples and critics, and the issues are not always clear-cut (forgive the pun). People can disagree, especially when the future of our surrounding forests is at stake. However, the Alliance trivialized the dispute by referring to Mission Project coalition members as “so-called environmental groups” in a press release. Really? Conservation Northwest, the Nature Conservancy, Trout Unlimited, the Methow Valley Citizens Council and the Wilderness Society are “so-called” environmental groups? Legal questions aside, bandying that kind of pejorative around was a pointless strategy, having nothing to do with the process and likely to alienate a lot of people. The Alliance characterized its suit as “battling ‘The Empire’ of gang green collaborators, timber industry and Trump’s Forest Service in the North Cascades.” How noble.
The Alliance was allied with some legal heavyweights. The organization was represented by Bricklin & Newman LLP, the highly regarded, Seattle-based environmental law firm with a historic profile in the Methow Valley. The Bricklin firm was instrumental in stopping the long-ago planned ski resort development near Mazama, and successfully sued to require that the infamous “hanging hut” cabin be moved back from the brow of Flagg mountain. At least the law firm has some familiarity with the turf.
If I lived in Montana, I’m sure I would be a big fan of the Alliance for the Wild Rockies. The organization has a 30-year track record of success in aggressively protecting the Northern Rockies from habitat destruction, according to its website. The Rockies need the Alliance. The Methow Valley does not.