Forest Service says Fryingpan logging project meets environmental muster

A forest health project proposed in the Upper Fryingpan Valley has got residents and some Basalt officials concerned about the logging truck traffic on narrow Frying Pan Road. The Forest Service will prohibit weekend logging truck traffic.
Aspen Times file photo |

The U.S. Forest Service recently introduced its arguments in a federal lawsuit alleging its planned logging project in the Upper Fryingpan Valley will be detrimental to the health of the surrounding forests and habitat.

The Forest Service filed what’s called an “opening merits brief” Dec. 9 in the U.S. District Court of Denver, the venue where 21 residents of the Fryingpan Valley took legal action in April to stop the project from taking place.

Because of their litigation, the Forest Service postponed plans to begin the harvest of 1,631 acres in the Upper Fryingpan last summer until the matter is settled.

In turn, Senior U.S. District Judge Marcia S. Krieger, who is presiding over the dispute, instructed each side to file their written arguments, with the petitioners’ brief coming Oct. 31.

In its response, the Forest Service contends the project has satisfied the federal criteria the plaintiffs have accused it of ignoring.

That included its analysis of the potential impacts through an environmental assessment, which was done in accordance with the National Environmental Policy Act, the reply said. The petitioners, led by Boston attorney John Swomley, whose family owns property and cabins in the Upper Fryingpan, argued in their opening brief that the Forest Service made its decision “without adequate analysis under the National Environmental Policy Act.”

The Forest Service also said in its reply that it responded to public concerns about the project by amending the plan in its final decision notice, which said the project’s impacts to the environment would be insignificant.

When the final decision notice was made public April 30, 2018, the Forest Service said it was dropping 128 acres from the project and making other changes in light of the objections. As well, the Forest Service said “hauling through the town of Basalt has been limited to no more than two consecutive operating seasons. Haul routes for the removal of wood products were carefully considered and design features have been incorporated into the project to minimize conflicts with recreationists and commuters using the Fryingpan Road and the Eagle-Thomasville Road,” according to its website.

The Forest Service also said the project is being done in the interest of the Upper Fryingpan Valley’s health, and that it “does not authorize any deforestation, which is the conversion of land from a forest to a non-forest use … but instead authorizes treatment that will accomplish an improved forested condition in harvest units.”

Improved health conditions will make the forest more resistant “to disturbances, such as future bark beetle outbreaks, fires, and other climate-related mortality events,” the Forest Service’s response said.

The affected area would include land in Pitkin and Eagle counties, and is located in the Aspen/Sopris Ranger District of the White River National Forest. More specifically, the project site is north of Frying Pan Road to the east and northeast of Ruedi Reservoir and to the south and west of the Harry Gates Hut, which is part of the 10th Mountain Division network of backcountry ski cabins.

The petitioners have argued that not only will they be impacted by the project, but outdoors enthusiasts and outfitters who use the area sill suffer “long-term harm to both their immediate recreational and economic interests and to the health of the forest they love.”