Another forest project, another lawsuit
The West Fork fire as photographed Friday evening from a vantage point on Bobtail Road about a mile north of Milton Drive. (John Blodgett/The Western News)
| November 7, 2021 12:00 AM
If there is one thing we can depend on, it is Michael Garrity and the Alliance for the Wild Rockies litigating another forest restoration project proposed by the U.S. Forest Service. This time Mr. Garrity wants to stop the Ripley Project on the Kootenai National Forest that is adjacent to the community of Libby.
This 29,000-acre project was developed following the disastrous 2017 wildfire season that destroyed over 200,000 acres of the Kootenai National Forest. Included in those fires was the West Fork Fire, which threatened residential areas north of Libby, prompting evacuations and burning tens of thousands of acres of privately-owned forest lands.
In an effort to protect the community from further risks of wildfire, the Forest Service, Lincoln County, the Kootenai Valley Stakeholders, Montana DNRC, and other private landowners joined forces to develop the Ripley Project to protect the community and provide restoration services for other resources including wildlife and water.
It seems the safety of people living in and near Libby and other resource values aren’t important to Mr. Garrity, although he professes in his lawsuit that Grizzly bears and Canada Lynx aren’t getting the protections they deserve. What Mr. Garrity is really hoping for is that he can find a chink in the 322-page Environmental Analysis prepared by the Forest Service that was also approved by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and hope that a judge will rule that the project analysis was inadequate.
The real endgame for Mr. Garrity is that if the court rules in his favor, his organization may receive attorney’s fees for filing the lawsuit under the Federal Equal Access to Justice Act (EAJA). On large lawsuits such as Ripley — which will often be heard by the courts two or three times — a successful award could be in the range of several hundred thousands of dollars.
With this understanding of how EAJA works, it doesn’t take a lot of imagination to understand that Mr. Garrity’s business model involves suing the Forest Service, since he has multiple lawsuits currently under way in Montana and Idaho. He has currently filed lawsuits on multiple national forests including the Nez Perce-Clearwater, Idaho Panhandle, Kootenai, Lolo, Helena-Lewis and Clark, and Custer Gallatin. There is no risk to filing the lawsuit because there is no penalty or payment owed to the Forest Service should the litigation fail, only an upside benefit of attorney’s fees if he wins.
Lincoln County residents know all to well the precarious situation we are in concerning wildfire potential throughout Lincoln County. Each year we worry about our safety until we see fall rains and snowfall.
So, the next time you read about a lawsuit filed by Mr. Garrity and the Alliance for the Wild Rockies, don’t focus on his false claims that he his trying to save the last grizzly bear or Canada lynx. Look a little deeper and understand that he is trying to pad his pocketbook with another big award from the Forest Service and U.S. taxpayers.
In the case of the Ripley Project, should he be successful, the community of Libby will remain at extreme risk of wildfire while Mr. Garrity takes the money that could have been used to thin those acres to prevent further destruction and possible loss of life.
Greg Larson lives in Troy.