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Lawsuit aims to stop clearcutting and road construction in critical habitat on the Bitterroot National Forest

January 16, 2024
Adam Rissien, WildEarth Guardians, arissien@wildearthguardians.org
In This Release
Public Lands   Bull trout, Whitebark Pine
#Climate Forests, #EndangeredSpeciesAct, #ForceForNature, #PressStatement, #ProtectWhatYouLove
MISSOULA, Mont.—Conservation groups filed a lawsuit on Thursday seeking to halt ongoing logging and road building on the Bitterroot National Forest that harms at-risk species including threatened bull trout and whitebark pine. 

Approved early last year, the Mud Creek Vegetation Management Project will, over the course of 20 years, commercially log 13,700 acres including 4,800 acres of clearcuts, in areas with mature and old growth forests under the guise of reducing wildfire risks. The project will bulldoze 43.75 miles of roads adding 8.95 miles of permanent and 33.8 miles of temporary roads in areas that flow into western tributaries of the Bitterroot River that are renowned for trout fishing. While the agency says it will remove the temporary roads at an unspecified time in the future, roads like these often persist on the ground for years. The project also adds 2.6 miles of new motorized trails and 40,360 acres of prescribed fire smoke.

The lawsuit challenges the Forest Service for its failure to account for the loss of carbon storage benefits from logging mature and old growth trees, as well as its failure to disclose the damaging impacts to bull trout and whitebark pine. The blue-ribbon fisheries on the West Fork of the Bitterroot and its tributaries will be greatly affected by increased road densities and increased motorized recreation including illegal off- road travel. The lawsuit challenges this approach to National Environmental Policy Act compliance for failing to adequately assess the potential environmental consequences as the law requires. 

“Bull trout need cold, clear streams to reproduce and thrive,” said Jim Miller, President of Friends of the Bitterroot. “Miles of road building and hundreds of log trucks traveling on the roads will add sediment to critical habitat streams and hinder the recovery of bull trout.”

The Forest Service did not specify when or where the agency will log the forest, nor the timing of road construction due to its use of what the agency calls “condition-based management.” Under “condition-based management,” the Forest Service collects site-specific information and discloses where they will log only after it issues a project decision.

“Despite the enormous size of the project, the Forest Service did not disclose where the logging and burning would take place,” said Mike Garrity of the Alliance for the Wild Rockies. “That’s a significant concern since the landscape and watersheds in this vast area provide a great diversity of essential fish and wildlife habitat. The whole purpose of the National Environmental Policy Act is to look before you leap.  The Mud Creek decision violates this.”

In addition to impacting whitebark pine and bull trout, the project uses a site-specific amendment to re-define old growth as the minimum criteria defined by a Region 1 study, greatly reducing Forest Plan protections for old growth and mature forests. The amendment will allow the forest to degrade old growth habitat, ruining its ability to support certain wildlife dependent on its characteristics and its ability to store carbon. It will also allow clearcutting in mature forests. 

“Under the direction of President Biden, the Forest Service announced a new policy just last month meant to protect and foster old growth forests in recognition of their ability to serve as part of a broader climate-crisis solution,” said Adam Rissien, ReWilding Manager with WildEarth Guardians. “The Bitterroot National Forest is literally undercutting the administration, and all these long-term projects like Mud Creek must be halted for careful evaluation of their consistency with the new policy.” 

“The proposed project converts old growth forests to timber management without analyzing the impacts of logging old growth forests on wildlife,” said Sara Johnson of Native Ecosystems Council and a former Forest Service wildlife biologist.


On January 13, 2023 the Bitterroot National Forest issued a final decision for its Mud Creek Vegetation Management project that authorizes commercial logging on 13,700 acres including clearcutting 4800 acres (more than 7 square miles) of mature forests in the West Fork Ranger District. The project would construct 33.8 miles of temporary roads, 8.95 miles of permanent roads, and 2.6 miles of new motorized trails through old forests. The West Fork already has the highest road densities on the BNF. The project will also include 40, 360 acres of prescribed burn smoke in the area.

The lawsuit challenges a project-specific amendment to re-define old growth as the minimum criteria of 8 trees per acre that are 170 years old and 21 inches in diameter at breast height (dbh), and a stand basal area of 60-80. According to Green et al 1992, old growth, ponderosa pine forests in the Bitterroot averaged 17 of these old trees per acre. The amendment would allow old growth forests to be logged down to half their number of large trees.

The lawsuit also challenges the Forest Service for its failure to account for the loss of carbon storage benefits from logging mature and old growth trees. On Earth Day 2022, President Biden issued this executive order titled “Strengthening the Nation’s Forests, Communities, and Local Economies” (EO 14072) requiring the Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management (BLM) to conserve mature and old-growth forests on federal lands. Logging old growth can release 40-65% of the ecosystem’s carbon to the atmosphere, even when considering off-site carbon storage in wood products. These old forests are valued by the public for solace and climate change mitigation.  

bitterroot national forest us forest service wildearth guardians

Bitterroot National Forest


Other Contact
Jim Miller, Friends of the Bitterroot, millerfobmt@gmail.com, Mike Garrity, Alliance for the Wild Rockies, 406-459-5936, wildrockies@gmail.com