Lawsuit targets logging in Rio Grande forest |

Lawsuit targets logging in Rio Grande forest

Judith Kohler
The Associated Press
Aspen, CO Colorado

DENVER ” Two environmental groups are suing to stop logging in southwest Colorado on forest land that feeds the headwaters of the Rio Grande.

The lawsuit filed Monday in federal court by WildEarth Guardians and Colorado Wild claims the U.S. Forest Service’s approval of logging the 3,500-acre site in the Rio Grande National Forest violates federal laws.

The lawsuit contends federal officials didn’t consider a reasonable range of alternatives or apply sound science.

Forest Service spokesman Mike Blakeman said Tuesday that the agency doesn’t comment on ongoing litigation.

“Watershed issues are really fundamental to our concerns,” said Ryan Bidwell of the Durango-based Colorado Wild.

The group is concerned about erosion spilling into waters feeding the river, which supplies drinking and irrigation water throughout the Southwest. Bidwell said the land east of Wolf Creek Pass hasn’t recovered from widespread logging more three decades ago.

Logging was first approved on Handkerchief Mesa in 1999 but was scrapped after Colorado Wild successfully appealed the plan. The project was revived last year and upheld by the forest supervisor on appeal.

The Forest Service said in an environmental assessment of the plan that allowing the logging would help the area timber industry. The agency said the project would also improve the forest’s health by promoting the growth of more desirable trees and stemming insect infestations and disease by removing infected trees.

But Mike Harris of the University of Denver Environmental Law Clinic, which filed the lawsuit on the environmental groups’ behalf, said the logging will further damage land in poor condition from past clear cutting and threaten the quality of the Rio Grande.

Area soils are compacted, which means they’re less able to absorb water, according to the lawsuit.

Bidwell of Colorado Wild questioned plans to remove overgrowth and leave younger trees because an infestation of spruce budworms is killing younger, smaller trees in the area.

“The only benefit to the project is timber coming off the ground,” Bidwell said.

Harris said the environmental groups want the Forest Service to approve a true restoration plan for the area.

“They should look at the whole health of an ecosystem instead of just a salvage operation,” Harris said.

Rio Grande National Forest Supervisor Dan Dallas said in a decision last year upholding the project that the district ranger took a “hard look” at all the relevant issues . He said watershed function and integrity were identified as key issues and potential erosion was directly addressed.

The area analyzed covered 92,000 acres on Handkerchief Mesa.

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