Bozeman man sues governor over forest priorities

4/30/2014 11:30 AM
By Associated Press

HELENA, Mont. (AP) — A Bozeman man on Tuesday sued Gov. Steve Bullock and three administration officials, arguing they should have gathered public input before recommending 5.1 million acres of U.S. Forest Service land for restoration.

Steve Kelly filed the lawsuit in District Court in Gallatin County, Lee Newspapers of Montana reported. Kelly, who his acting as his own attorney, asked the court to void Bullock's suggestions and require that the governor and the state Department of Natural Resources and Conservation conduct public meetings.

The lawsuit also names state forester Bob Harrington; Tim Baker, Bullock's natural resources adviser; and John Tubbs, director of the natural resources department.

Earlier this month, Bullock identified forest lands in western and south-central Montana that he said are declining in health, have a risk of increased tree deaths or pose a safety risk. The restoration work would include some logging.

The suggestions come under the federal farm bill signed into law in February, allowing state leaders to alert the U.S. Department of Agriculture to forest damaged by disease or insects. The USDA would choose areas to receive expedited forest management for the next 15 years.

The lawsuit alleges Bullock's recommendation to the federal government "was hatched by seven people over the course of five conference calls that deliberately avoided any opportunity for public input."

Bullock has defended the plan as the product of "collaboration by conservationists and forest rangers, county commissioners and the wood products industry."

Harrington has said six people were invited to join an ad-hoc advisory group on the selection. The group was made up of Bruce Farling of Montana Trout Unlimited; Barb Cestero of the Greater Yellowstone Coalition; Carol Brooker, a Sanders County commissioner; Julia Altemus of the Montana Wood Products Association; Keith Olson of the Montana Logging Association; and Gary Burnett, of the Blackfoot Challenge and Southwest Crown Collaborative.

"We proposed a responsible plan that seeks to break the gridlock that has, for too long, prohibited thoughtful management of our federal lands and had disastrous impacts on the health of our forests," Bullock said.

The governor's office said the farm bill gave governors 60 days to nominate areas for restoration, making it necessary to make the recommendation based on the selection process used. If the Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack designates the lands, they will be subject to review allowing for full public comment, the state said.

"While we're only at the beginning of this conversation, Montanans can be excited about healthier forests, improved watersheds, habitat and fisheries, increased recreational opportunities and good paying jobs," Bullock said.

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