US Forest Service logging, burning project: Monroe County’s environmental commission votes to become plaintiff in lawsuit

REVISED REDACTED Screen Shot 2020-05-11 at 8.17.12 PM
Thumbnails from the US Forest Service response to a request filed under the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA). Image links to full .pdf file of response.

At its meeting held on Monday afternoon, Monroe County’s environmental commission voted unanimously to join the county as a plaintiff in the lawsuit that’s being prepared against the U.S. Forest Service. [Updated May 14, 2020 at 10:24 a.m. The lawsuit has now been filed.]

The pending legal action by county officials involves the forest service’s Houston South Vegetation Management and Restoration Project planned for the Hoosier National forest just southeast of the Monroe County line.

The use of the word “restoration” in the name of the project was a point of objection for Julie Thomas, president of the county’s board of commissioners, at their March 18 meeting. Thomas said, “I really resent that they call it a ‘restoration project’, because that’s just…doesn’t fit.”

It was at the March 18 meeting when county commissioners approved a retainer agreement with  the law firm Eubanks and Associates in connection with the lawsuit that’s now being prepared.

The county council and the county commissioners met in a joint executive session on May 6 to discuss initiation of the legal proceedings. It was closed to the public as allowed under an exception included in Indiana’s Open Door Law.

As described by the forest service, the purpose of the project is “to promote tree growth, reduce insect and disease levels and move the landscape toward desired conditions. It would also increase the resiliency and structure of forested areas (stands) by restoring the composition, structure, pattern and ecological processes necessary to make these ecosystems sustainable.”

The project activities proposed by the forest service include clear cutting about 400 acres, and some kind of tree removal from another roughly 3,000 acres. Also a part of the mix are herbicide spot treatments on about 2,000 acres. About three miles of new roads are supposed to be built along with eight miles worth of temporary roads.

Although the project area is nestled into the northwest corner of Jackson County and does not cross into Monroe County, it would impact areas that are a part of the Lake Monroe watershed.

Lake Monroe is the source of drinking water for Bloomington and most of Monroe County. That’s one reason the forest service project has drawn energetic local opposition.

At the March 18 board of commissioners meeting, which took place in person at the courthouse on the leading edge of the COVID-19 countermeasures, Thomas said the possible drinking water crisis that could be caused by the forest services project—in contrast to the pandemic—would be man-made and avoidable. She called it “unconscionable.”

In the course of the environmental assessment commentary period, Thomas said, “We’ve gotten nowhere with the forest service folks.” The forest service has other options for locating the project, Thomas said, which would not threaten the drinking water source for Monroe County.

At the March 18 meeting, county commissioner Lee Jones said, “In spite of the overall [COVID-19] situation, it’s quite important that we move forward with it and try to protect our local drinking water.”

Jones is also a member of the county’s environmental commission, but was not able to attend Monday’s meeting. Presiding over the meeting as president of the commission on Monday was Dave Warren. Later in the meeting, after the unanimous vote to joint the county’s lawsuit, Warren stepped down due to time commitments and Nolan Hendon was voted in as Warren’s successor.

Warren reviewed the commission’s history of engagement on the Houston South project, which began in fall of 2018. The key fact about the project is that its location overlaps with the Lake Monroe watershed, which is the drinking water supply for 130,000 people in Monroe County, Warren said. The commission had filed comments on the project with the forest service, Warren said, and made a trip to Bedford for a forest service meeting with objectors.

The objections were not resolved, Warren said. He filed a request under the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) to find out if the forest service had considered alternative locations. In the FOIA response Warren received from the forest service, there was a place in the document where a couple of alternatives were indicated, immediately following that five pages were completely redacted, he said. Warren said he would like to know the decision making process that was used to settle on the project location.

The vote by environmental commissioners on Monday was not subjected to extended deliberations.

The timeline for the legal action was sketched out for the commission on Monday by attorney Nick Lawton, a senior associate at Eubanks & Associates. It could follow one of two paths, Lawton said. It would depend on the county’s ability to negotiate constructively with the forest service, he said. He hoped that the forest service would be willing to talk about a reasonable schedule for the litigation, before it goes out and starts logging and burning.

If the forest services wants to go ahead with the project before the litigation is handled, he might have to seek an emergency injunction, Lawton said. That would put things on a much quicker timeline.

The $50,000 appropriation to pay for the legal services of Eubanks & Associates was approved by the county council in mid-April on a 5–2 split vote.  Councilors Geoff McKim and Marty Hawk voted against it. The were both concerned about the as-yet unknown negative impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on county finances.

McKim asked during the county council’s meeting if the city of Bloomington utilities was going to be a party to the lawsuit. No, was the answer he got from county attorney Margie Rice.

McKim said he was convinced that the environmental assessment that was done for the Houston South project was defective and that other locations were not adequately considered. But he said, “Right now I am most concerned about our ability to carry on our essential county government functions.”

McKim was joined in dissent from the vote by Marty Hawk, who said it was “money down the tube at a time when we can least afford to pitch it.”