Monroe County officials and conservation groups are claiming a partial legal victory after a federal judge ordered federal agencies to assess how the logging and burning of thousands of acres of the Hoosier National Forest will affect Lake Monroe.
The Monroe County Board of Commissioners, the Monroe County Environmental Commission, Hoosier Environmental Council, Indiana Forest Alliance and Dr. Paul Simcox, a Monroe County resident, in 2020 filed a lawsuit in federal court against the U.S. Forest Service’s Houston South Vegetation Management and Restoration Project, which is intended to improve forest health and sustainability by logging or burning more than 17,000 acres of the Hoosier National Forest.
The project will 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 groups argued that the project would pollute streams that flow into Lake Monroe.
In the lawsuit, the groups said the project violated the National Environmental Policy Act, which requires federal agencies to assess the environmental effects of proposed projects, by not considering alternatives to the project and the Endangered Species Act, and by not assessing the project’s effect on the Indiana bat and other endangered or threatened species.
The groups asked the court to throw out the “minimal and flawed” environmental analysis conducted by the Forest Service that said the project would have “no significant impact” on the environment near the project site. It also asked the court to order the Forest Service to undertake a new, thorough assessment of the project’s effect on surrounding areas, like the Lake Monroe Watershed.
Chief Judge Tanya Walton Pratt, of the U.S. Southern District of Indiana, dismissed claims the project violated the Endangered Species Act and that defendants did not consider alternatives to the project, but ordered the Forest Service to fully evaluate the effects of the project on Lake Monroe.
“The problem with Defendants’ [environmental assessment] is that it failed to adequately consider or discuss the legitimate concerns the Houston South Project could have on Lake Monroe,” Pratt wrote in the court’s decision.
The Forest Service’s environmental assessment for the project looked at how the logging, burning and other activities would affect the environment and wildlife within the boundaries of the project area. The assessment did not report how it would affect Lake Monroe or its watershed.
Lake Monroe was built in 1964 by the Louisville District of the Army Corps of Engineers to reduce flood damage to areas downstream from a dam on Salt Creek. The lake stores surface water runoff from various sources on the 441-square mile Lake Monroe watershed.
The lake is the sole source of drinking water for more than 120,000 people in Monroe County.
Pollution from septic tanks, fertilizer, animal manure and sediments have increased the amount of nutrients like phosphorus and nitrogen in the lake, impairing its use. The lake already faces drinking water impairments like algal blooms caused by elevated nitrogen from the runoff carrying excess nutrients.
The algae can produce different toxins that can cause rashes, skin or eye irritation, nausea, stomach aches and a tingling sensation in fingers and toes. It also affects the taste of drinking water, as Bloomington residents recently experienced.
The Indiana Department of Environmental Management lists several waterways on the Lake Monroe watershed, including Crooked Creek, South Fork Salt Creek and Little Salt Creek, as having impairments that could ultimately affect the quality of Lake Monroe’s water.
The groups that filed the lawsuit said they were concerned the project at the Hoosier National Forest could go ahead without having a full understanding of how it will affect the Lake Monroe watershed.
Chief Judge Pratt agreed that the NEPA law required the Forest Service and its parent agency, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, to fully assess the impact of the project, even beyond its physical boundaries, in order to protect and restore watershed health and to keep from violating NEPA and other federal laws.
“We are encouraged by the Court’s decision to uphold our claim against the U.S. Forest Service,” said Julie Thomas, president of the Monroe County Board of Commissioners, in a press release. “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.”
The court’s decision does not set a deadline for when the Forest Service must begin or complete the environmental assessment. The defendants can still appeal the decision.