Ruling on National Forest protects Lake Monroe

INDIANA — Monroe County officials and other plaintiffs are pleased by a ruling by the United States District Court for the Southern District of Indiana. The court found that the US Forest Service (USFS) violated federal law when deciding to log, burn and apply herbicides to thousands of acres of the Hoosier National Forest that drain to Monroe Reservoir.

The “Houston South Vegetation Management and Restoration Project” is located on more than 13,000 acres in Jackson and Lawrence Counties in the Hoosier National Forest.

Houston South Screen Shot 2020-05-14 at 12.30.30 PM
The project area for the Houston South project is shown in dark red, with the Lake Monroe watershed in heavy blue. The image is from the meeting minutes for the Feb. 12, 2019 meeting of Monroe County’s council. Image links to meeting minutes.

The ruling issued by Judge Tanya Pratt on March 30th found that the USFS violated the National Environmental Policy Act by failing to evaluate the potential impact of the Houston South Project on Lake Monroe and remanded the project back to the USFS to analyze those impacts.

The plaintiffs, which include the Monroe County Board of Commissioners, Monroe County Environmental Commission, Dr. Paul David Simcox, Hoosier Environmental Council, and the Indiana Forest Alliance, filed the lawsuit against the USFS in May 2020 for violations of the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA), the National Forest Management Act (NFMA), and the Endangered Species Act (ESA).

Julie Thomas

Speaking on behalf of the Plaintiff’s group, Julie Thomas, President of the Monroe County Board of Commissioners stated, “We are encouraged by the Court’s decision to uphold our claim against the US Forest Service. By remanding this back to the Forest Service, the Court has recognized the potentially deleterious impact of the Houston South plan on the water supply of more than 120,000 residents.”

Jeff Stant

Jeff Stant, Executive Director of the Indiana Forest Alliance added, “This judgment should guide future plans in the Hoosier National Forest, such as the proposed Buffalo Springs project and the impact it will have on Patoka Reservoir, the water supply for 150,000 people.”

Dr. David Simcox, an individual [laintiff said, “This ruling sends a clear message to the USFS that it must expand the scope and detail in its environmental analysis. The government must consider the downstream effects of its projects.”

Plaintiffs expressed concern over other aspects of the Court’s ruling, which dismissed claims that the USFS should have looked at more alternatives to the Houston South Project than its preferred aggressive logging and burning plan and should have more fully examined the Project’s impacts on the endangered Indiana Bat by looking at the latest research on the status of this animal. That research places the bat in more serious trouble than analysis for the project recognized.

Tim Maloney

Tim Maloney, Senior Policy Director of Hoosier Environmental Council, stated, “By looking at other alternatives, the USFS could reduce the threat of this project to Monroe Reservoir and conserve, if not promote, the recreational and ecological values of this large forested area which are unique in the state and the lower Midwest. The Forest Service seems to be oblivious to the concerns of Hoosiers who want these values to be protected on the state’s limited public lands.”

Stant added, “We are concerned that the Forest Service will view the dismissal of these claims as a green light for doing lax analysis of alternatives to other projects in the HNF, no matter how massive their impacts are or what they will do to animals that are in dire straits. We are discussing options for the next steps with our Legal Counsel and the other plaintiffs.”

The plaintiffs, in this case, were represented by the public-interest law firm Eubanks & Associates, PLLC.