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Entries in Forest Service (4)


Ravalli County looks to outside help in water rights dispute

(HAMILTON)- Frustrated by finding themselves on the "outside" of the process to extend water rights to the U.S. Forest Service in the Bitterroot, Ravalli County commissioners are turning to a Wyoming attorney to help craft a better way to approach the debate.

Ravalli County commissioners continue to express concerns over the move by the Forest Service to file for water rights on streams coming out of the Bitterroot. The agency gained the ability to file for those rights in negotiations with the state, with Bitterroot National Forest managers saying the effort is merely to protect fish habitat, and not to interfere with other, older uses like farming and ranching. 

However, commissioners are concerned about a fight over the limited water supplies in the future. They've tried to file objections, but have been rejected by the state because Ravalli County doesn't have "standing". 

Now, commissioners are endorsing the idea of using donations to help pay for a Wyoming attorney who specializes in similar federal water right cases.

"That individual has a more specific range of experience in litigation over these items," Commissioner J.R. Iman told KPAX TV. "And so if we could craft our objections in a different way so that they can, may receive recognition."

The attorney, Karen Budd-Falen, would help Ravalli County develop a "template" it could use in filing any objections to new Forest Service water right filings. And commissioners are establishing a fund, where concerned citizens could donate money to help pay for Budd-Falen's services. Any specific steps must be approved by the county. 


Judge rules Big Mountain Jesus statue can remain

(MISSOULA)- A federal judge says the statue of Jesus Christ on Big Mountain is "unquestionably" a religious symbol. But he rules the Forest Service was within the law when it granted a new permit for the statue more than a year ago. 

That's the ruling from U.S. District Court Judge Dana Christensen who issued the summary judge Monday in favor of the Forest Service, in the case brought by the Freedom From Religion Foundation. 

FFRF had filed suit against the Forest Service and the Knights of Columbus for permitting the statue on federal land at the summit of Big Mountain. The statue was first erected in the early 1950s in tribute to World War 2 veterans. 

But FFRF claimed it was a religious icon, and as such violated the U.S. Constitution, challenging the Forest Service's decision to grant a new permit for the statue in 2011. 

All parties agreed not to take the case to a trial, which would have happened earlier this month, agreeing instead to a summary judgement from the bench. 

In the 28-page ruling, Christensen found that while the status is a religious symbol "not every religious symbol runs afoul of the Establishment Clause of the United Status Constitution." 

"To some, Big Mountain Jesus is offensive, and to others it represents only a religious symbol," Chistensen wrote. "But the court suspects that most who happen to encounter Big Mountain Jesus, it neither offends nor inspires."  He went on to say the statue is a reminder of skiing at Big Mountain before development, and "to many serves as a historical reminder of those bygone days of sack lunches, ungroomed runs, rope tows, t-bars, leather ski boots, and 210 cm. skis."

Christensen ruled the new permit doesn't "reflect government endorsement of religion", noting it location on a "private ski hill", with a plaque showing private ownership, saying many who view the statue probably aren't aware of any government connection. 


Tester says Forest Service tanker deal puts Montana "at risk"

(WASHINGTON, D.C.)- Senator Jon Tester is upset with the Forest Service's decision to award contracts for "next generation" air tankers to companies which still don't have their jets ready to fight fires. 

The criticism came at a hearing in Washington Wednesday, when Tester grilled Forest Service chief Tom Tidwell during a budget hearing before the Senate Appropriations Committee. 

Earlier this month the Forest Service announced it was awarding a contract for 7-new tankers to several companies after starting over on the bidding process last year. That decision left Missoula's Neptune Aviation off the list, even though Neptune had initially won the first contract last year and is one of the few operators with jet tankers ready to go. 

Neptune is appealing that decision. 

Tester says the Forest Service left "better options on the table", and not having all the tankers ready this year puts Montana communities at risk this fire season. 

“I’ve seen what’s happened in Montana’s forests, and I can’t figure out why the award was made how it was,” Tester told Tidwell.  “My problem is there are better options on the table to be taken up by the Forest Service and you didn’t do it.”

Tidwell said the new planes still need to be tested. 




Forest Service cancels firefighter contract with Aero Union

(WASHINGTON, D.C.)- The U.S. Forest Service has pulled the plug on its contract with a California-based company, citing major safety concerns.

The Forest Service announced Friday that it was terminating its contract with Aero Union of Sacramento, saying the company had “failed to meet its contractual obligations.” Specifically, the agency cited concerns over Aero Union’s safety capabilities.

"Our main priority is protecting and saving lives, and we can't in good conscience maintain an aviation contract where we feel lives may be put at risk due to inadequate safety practices” said Tom Harbour, director of the Forest Service’s Fire and Aviation Management program. “This contract termination notwithstanding, we possess the aircraft support needed for this year's fire season."

Aero Union had been providing six airtankers to the Forest Service firefighting efforts. The Forest Service says the planes didn’t pass FAA inspection for its structural requirements.

The tankers used in aerial firefighting have to withstand tremendous stress, and frequently the planes are based on older planes that have been in service for many seasons.

Forest Service officials say they still have access to 11 other planes from two other private companies, including Neptune Aviation in Missoula. Neptune has been testing a new jet-powered tanker over Missoula the past couple of weeks.

Other tankers are available to the Forest Service from Alaska, as well as contracted helicopters and a few military aircraft.