Lawsuit put hold on Hoosier National Forest Prescribed Burning

Local Sources- The United States South District Court of Indiana has granted a preliminary injunction filed by the plaintiffs in a case against the U.S. Forest Service (USFS), in response to the agency’s decision to proceed with the Houston South Vegetation Management and Restoration Project. 

In January, the plaintiffs in a 2020 lawsuit against the project filed suit against the USFS in the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Indiana, challenging the agency’s failure to comply with the Court’s April 2022 order in the prior lawsuit remanding the project to the USFS to examine its impacts on Monroe Reservoir. 

The Plaintiffs, which include the Indiana Forest Alliance, Monroe County Board of Commissioners, and Hoosier Environmental Council— in addition to Friends of Lake Monroe, which was not part of the prior lawsuit— argued that the USFS remains in violation of the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) by ignoring the Court’s ruling to evaluate the environment effects of this logging and burning project on Lake Monroe. In filing the motion for a preliminary injunction, the plaintiffs sought to enjoin the USFS from taking any action to implement the Houston South project, stating that the Forest Service has no legitimate equitable argument for needing to commence this project prior to a ruling on the merits of the case. 

Speaking on behalf of the plaintiffs, Indiana Forest Alliance Executive Jeff Stant stated, “We are extremely pleased with the Court’s decision, recognizing that our filing demonstrated a likelihood of success on the merits, as well as the imminent, irreparable harm if the project proceeded prior to a final ruling in the pending legal case. Some five and a half square miles, mostly of steep hillsides within a few miles of Lake Monroe, were scheduled to be burned starting next week. Burning releases large amounts of sediment and nutrients such as nitrogen and phosphorus. Yet the Forest Service had no plan to monitor the quality of water running off most of these hillsides before it would enter the Lake, the sole water supply for more than 120,000 people.” 

Julie Thomas, of the Monroe County Commissioners stated, “We are grateful that, in granting the preliminary injunction, the court took into consideration the balance of equities and public interest. The residents of Monroe County have a lot more at stake in protecting their water supply than the Forest Service has at stake if this project were delayed.”

Tim Maloney, Senior Policy Director for Hoosier Environmental Council adds, “The Forest Service took 14 years to put this project together under the outdated 2006 Management Plan for the Hoosier National Forest. The Forest Service has no basis to argue now that the public’s interest will be irreparably harmed if the agency has to take the time to do the proper analysis of this destructive project’s impact on Lake Monroe.” 

Sherry Mitchell-Bruker, President of the Friends of Lake Monroe, which organization just completed the Lake Monroe Watershed Management Plan last year states, “Lake Monroe is already suffering from high levels of sediment and nutrient pollution. We are relieved that this Court is requiring the Forest Service to comply with the National Environmental Policy Act’s requirement to examine the impacts of the extensive logging and burning in the Houston South Project on our drinking water supply. We hope this decision will encourage the agency to respect the concerns of the local community and recognize the responsibility of the Forest Service to protect and not degrade water quality.” 

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