Lawsuit filed against U.S. Forest Service

The Monroe County government and two statewide environmental groups are filing suit against the U.S. Forest Service, alleging violations of the Environmental Protection Act.

The claims center on a plan from the U.S. Forest Service that would directly impact the Houston South area of the Hoosier National Forest in Jackson and Lawrence counties, according to a news release.

The Houston South Vegetation Management and Restoration project could potentially impact around 13,500 acres of forest through logging, burning or herbicide treatment.

Olivia Walker, Acting National Press Officer for the Forest Service, said the agency could not comment on pending litigation.

Monroe County commissioners, Monroe County Environmental Commission, Indiana Forest Alliance, Hoosier Environmental Council and Dr. David Simcox, who are the plaintiffs in the suit, contend this plan would create runoff that also would pollute Lake Monroe, which is the drinking water source for the Bloomington area, and disrupt recreation along the Knobstone Trail, which spans more than 150 miles through the forest.

According to the plaintiffs in court filings, the portion of the Knobstone Trail that runs through the location of the Houston South project is of vital importance to the entire trail because it connects the northern and southern segments of the trail that are located on state or private land rather than the national forest.

“The Hickory Ridge area, which is within the Houston South project area, provides numerous trails that intersect the long-distance Knobstone Trail and provide a unique combination of hiking opportunities along the Knobstone Trail,” plaintiffs wrote. “This area provides valuable variety in the lengths of hikes, ranging from day hikes to overnight camping opportunities to long-distance hiking.”

Plaintiffs claimed the forest service did not consider alternatives that would mitigate the damage of this plan, which they say is a violation of the Environmental Protection Act.

“After nearly 18 months of commenting, asking for key reports and objecting to this project and the U.S. Forest Service’s dismissal of all the important concerns, Monroe County and the plaintiffs were left with no other recourse but to file this suit,” Monroe County Commissioner Julie Thomas said. “We are taking this action to protect our forest and the sole source of drinking water for 140,000 citizens in our region.”

In court documents, the Indiana Forest Alliance said it submitted detailed comments to the U.S. Forest Service that laid out the potential dangers of this plan at every opportunity. The group also said it filed an objection to the plan in a timely manner.

Additionally, the plaintiffs, defended by a public interest law firm named Eubanks and Associates, also have notified the U.S. Forest Service of plans to sue over alleged violations of the Endangered Species Act, stating this plan does not take into account the potential impact on the Indiana bat and the northern long-eared bat, both endangered species.

The suit seeks to force the service to halt the project and force them to re-evaluate the plan in accordance with the National Environmental Protection Act.