Enviros block timber sale | AspenTimes.com

Enviros block timber sale

A coalition of environmental groups forced the U.S. Forest Service to start from scratch Thursday with plans for a major timber sale southwest of Glenwood Springs.

The conservationists and feds announced that they had settled a lawsuit filed by the conservationists over the Baylor Park timber sale on 2,900 acres near Sunlight Mountain Resort.

The environmental groups hailed the settlement as important because it requires the Forest Service to conduct a study on the logging in a way it should have been done in the first place. They claimed the timber sale was approved without adequate monitoring of wildlife in the area, and therefore they could not understand the affects on that wildlife.

The lawsuit was filed by the Aspen Wilderness Workshop, Colorado Wild and Center for Native Ecosystems.

“Apparently they haven’t been doing wildlife monitoring around the whole forest,” said Sloan Shoemaker, conservation director for Aspen Wilderness Workshop. “Somebody’s got to hold the Forest Service accountable – and if we don’t do it, nobody will.”

But the Forest Service indicated the Baylor Park logging proposal was approved with larger issues of forest health in mind. The agency said logging was needed to stop the spread of a spruce bark beetle infestation.

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Controversy starts with blowdown

The controversy started in 1999 when a windstorm blew down engelmann spruce, subalpine fir and aspen trees across 2,000 to 3,000 acres of national forest. Sopris District Ranger Bill Westbrook approved a timber sale in August 2001.

The Forest Service feared that beetles attracted to the downed timber would invade weakened living trees and healthy trees in the surrounding forest. He approved a salvage harvest of downed timber and thinning in surrounding forest.

“It may not have been possible to prevent an epidemic from occurring, but there was a need to try and reduce the impact of spruce bark beetles by protecting seed sources and species diversity,” said Westbrook.

The conservation groups filed a lawsuit claiming the Forest Service didn’t perform the type of thorough study required. They also claimed the logging would create 11.3 miles of new and reconstructed roads and harm wildlife habitat.

Shoemaker said the Forest Service was going to allow logging on healthy forest lands adjacent to the wind-damaged area. That expanded sale – which he labeled a “timber grab” – would have affected old-growth forest, he said.

U.S. Rep. Scott McInnis reacted angrily to the lawsuit. He targeted it as an example of how environmentalists can hold up logging projects he believes are necessary and worthwhile. The Congressman couldn’t be reached for comment Thursday about the settlement.

Terms of the deal

The settlement will allow the Forest Service to hold a salvage sale on 210 acres. Trees that have already died and are down can be logged. Construction will be limited to one-half mile of temporary roads.

“We didn’t object to them going after the wind-thrown trees,” said Shoemaker.

The Forest Service could have performed that work immediately, if it hadn’t expanded its logging operation, he said. Conservationists were particularly concerned that the Forest Service didn’t study the potential effect on wildlife.

“If you don’t know what wildlife species are there and how they are faring, how can you say there isn’t going to be any impact,” said Shoemaker. “In their rush to log, the Forest Service tried to bypass the law and that was unacceptable.”

The settlement requires the Forest Service to perform a Supplemental Environmental Impact Statement on logging beyond the 210 acres of downed trees. That study could take up to two years.

Westbrook said it would be “unfair” to say the litigation and additional study will be directly responsible for a greater beetle infestation. It might have occurred anyway, he said.

What is clear now, he said, is that infestation will occur and affect some live, healthy trees.

“There’s a good chance we’re going to see mature spruce stands dying,” he said.

Forest Service biologists explained to him that the spruce bark beetles are attracted to the downed trees and live off of them for about two years. Next, they are attracted to surrounding live trees weakened by the windstorm. Finally, they invade surrounding healthy trees.

In a June 2002 study, a Forest Service team found more than 2,300 standing trees affected by beetles.

“We are disappointed we lost the opportunity to possibly minimize a spruce bark beetle epidemic, as well as provide timber products to the local and regional economy,” Westbrook said.

However, he put a positive spin on the episode. He said negotiations with the conservationists cleared the way for “a better working relationship.”