Fryingpan residents challenge forest service logging project in federal court

Twenty-one residents of the Upper Fryingpan Valley are asking the federal court to stop the U.S. Forest Service’s upcoming logging project before it starts.

Late last week, the group filed a petition in the U.S. District Court of Colorado, claiming the project, which is scheduled to begin this summer, will damage the environment while impacting tourism and the quality of life, among other concerns, in the area located roughly east of Basalt.

“If the project is implemented, petitioners and tourists are likely to recreate less in the valley, harming petitioners’ enjoyment of the area’s natural beauty and decreasing the economic value such recreation brings to local residents,” says the 16-page petition, which was filed Thursday by attorney John Swomley of the Boston law firm Swomley & Tennen LLP. Swomley could not be reached for immediate comment Monday.

Swomley’s family owns a cabin in the Upper Fryingpan, according to a September 2017 report by Aspen Public Radio. Four of his relatives are listed among the petitioners in the filing.

Last year, the Forest Service released its decision authorizing the clear-cutting of 1,631 acres in the Upper Fryingpan, down from the originally planned 1,759 acres.

“This project will provide forest products to local and regional industry while also improving forest resilience and habitat for snowshoe hare, a species that is a key food source for Canadian lynx,” District Ranger Karen Schroyer said in a statement issued April 30, 2018. “It is part of the mission of the Forest Service to responsibly manage National Forests for multiple uses. Through the NEPA (National Environmental Policy Act) process and productive dialogue, I believe we have struck a balance to achieve the purpose of this project.”

The Forest Service said Monday its policy is to not comment about pending litigation.

“We issued a decision in (April 30, 2018) on the Upper Fryingpan Vegetation Management Project — we went through a rigorous objection process that included on-site visits and adjusted the decision to meet some of those objection points,” Deputy District Ranger Louis Neff said in an email to The Aspen Times, noting the Forest Service was unaware of the filing of the petition. “We are now in the process of project implementation for summer of 2019.”

The suit names as defendants the Forest Service and Schroyer, who is the district ranger for the Aspen-Sopris Ranger District of the White River National Forest, because she “signed the final decision notice approving the Upper Fryingpan project, thus enabling its implementation.”

The project area 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, part of the 10th Mountain Division network of backcountry ski cabins.

The project calls for the construction of 9 miles of road needed in order to clear-cut the trees; some of the timber would be sold as biomass to the Eagle Clean Energy Plan in Gypsum, the suit says, claiming that the project’s “impact on climate change is reasonably foreseeable because the Forest Service has committed to both deforestation and providing resources to the Gypsum biomass plant. Scientific consensus supports the actuality of these practices’ climate impacts.”

Other impacts would be felt on fungi in the area, while the petition contends the Forest Service failed to provide an environmental impact statement for the project.

“Impacts include, among others, destruction of Canada lynx habitat, increased carbon emissions and impacts to tourism and recreation,” the petition says. “Without court action, the Forest Service can continue to approve and implement projects that ignore climate change and significant ecological effects.”

The petition asks the court to stop the project from happening until “the violations of federal law set forth herein have been corrected to the satisfaction of this Court.”