A federal court stopped the implementation of a controversial management project at the Hoosier National Forest that local governments and environmental groups said violates federal law and could negatively impact the water quality of Lake Monroe, the drinking water source for nearly 130,000 Hoosiers.
Chief Judge Tanya Walton Pratt of the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Indiana issued a preliminary injunction March 29, preventing the U.S. Forest Service from carrying out the Houston South Vegetation Management and Restoration Project. The project includes a planned harvest of thousands of acres of trees and herbicide treatment in a part of the Hoosier National Forest located in the northwest corner of Jackson County.
The Monroe County Board of Commissioners, along with the Indiana Forest Alliance, Hoosier Environmental Council and Friends of Lake Monroe, sued to stop the project in January. The groups contended that the Forest Service violated federal law by failing to fully evaluate how the project would affect Lake Monroe.
The project is expected to last between 12 and 20 years, during which time approximately 13,500 acres of forest will be burned, 4,000 acres will be logged and herbicide will be applied to 2,000 acres.
The Forest Service performed an Environmental Assessment in 2019 that looked the project’s effect on the environment within the boundaries of the project. The assessment did not analyze how the project would affect Lake Monroe, despite the project area being located on one of the four watersheds that feed into the lake, the South Fork Salt Creek watershed.
The Monroe County Board of Commissioners and the groups filed suit in 2020, alleging the project violated the National Environmental Policy Act by not considering alternatives to the project and the Endangered Species Act by not assessing the project’s effect on the Indiana bat and other endangered species.
Pratt oversaw the case and ruled in 2022 that the plan did not violate those federal laws but ordered the Forest Service to evaluate why the project’s impact on Lake Monroe would not be significant.
The Forest Service performed a review of the existing environmental assessment, called a supplemental information report, instead of performing a new assessment. The agency said the decision was due to the time-sensitive nature of the project and risks associated with not managing the forest in the area.
The agency said it had a “high level of confidence” that the project would not negatively impact Lake Monroe water quality.
The Monroe County Board of Commissioners and the groups filed suit again in January, saying the limited nature of the supplemental information report violated the court’s 2022 order and federal laws and asked Pratt to stop the project from moving forward April 1 in order to have more time to fully present their case.
Pratt agreed and issued a preliminary injunction that stopped a prescribed burn April 1 and all future project activities until the Forest Service “can make a showing sufficient to pass muster” under two federal laws.
Pratt also ordered the plaintiffs in the lawsuit to pay an $11,596 bond, 10% of the amount Forest Service said it was losing due to the delay.