A federal judge is forcing environmentalists to back their challenge of a logging project with cold, hard cash.

In November, U.S. District Judge Donald Molloy ordered a halt to logging on the Beaverhead-Deerlodge National Forest, outside of Butte, after three environmental groups appealed the judge’s earlier decision to allow the 2,600-acre timber harvest. Then, on Dec. 20, Molloy ordered the groups to post a $100,000 bond. Should the groups lose their appeal before the 9th Circuit Court, the money would help compensate the Forest Service and a private contractor for losses due to the delay, such as decaying timber. The agency had requested a $400,000 bond.

"We have asked for this kind of accountability for years," says Ellen Engstedt, executive vice president of the Montana Wood Products Association. "Ninety-eight percent of these cases are not legitimate. These groups have nothing to lose."

While bonds up to $10,000 aren’t unusual, one this size "certainly make(s) you gulp and think twice about the strength of your case," says Andy Stahl, executive director of Forest Service Employees for Environmental Ethics.

The plaintiffs are being forced to risk bankruptcy just to get into court, says Michael Garrity, executive director of the Alliance for the Wild Rockies. His group and the other two — the Ecology Center and the Native Ecosystems Council — can’t guarantee such a large bond, he says, and they’ve asked Molloy to rescind or reduce it: "If we were to put up all our assets and lose, we would be out of business immediately."