Legal arguments begin in Fryingpan logging project dispute
Litigation that held up last summer’s planned logging project in the Upper Fryingpan Valley will grind into the winter months with parties on both sides — a group of 21 residents pitted against the U.S. Forest Service — taking their arguments to a federal judge.
On Oct. 31, Boston attorney John Swomley, whose family owns property and cabins in the Upper Fryingpan and who also is the lead attorney for the plaintiffs, filed an opening merits brief in the U.S. District Court of Denver predicting a gloomy future for the scenic area if the clear-cutting project takes place.
Swomley’s pleading argued that what is known as the Fryingpan Vegetation Management Project will impact the plaintiffs, as well as outdoors enthusiasts and outfitters who use the area, with “long-term harm to both their immediate recreational and economic interests and to the health of the forest they love.”
The Forest Service has until Dec. 9 to file its opening brief. The agency offered a glimpse into its justification for the project in a June pleading to the case. In fact, it said the logging project will have the opposite effect on the very area the plaintiffs said will suffer long-term damage.
“Planned vegetative treatments under the project are designed to increase the amount of young forest on the landscape and improve forest resiliency to insect, disease, wildfire and climate-related mortality, thus contributing to long-term carbon uptake and storage,” the reply said.
Regardless, the Forest Service postponed the project’s summer start in the wake of the plaintiff’s April petition filing in federal court to undo the Forest Service’s decision — made official a year earlier in April 2018 — to conduct logging on 1,631 acres.
The affected area would include land in Pitkin and Eagle counties, and is located 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 Forest Service, Swomley said in the opening brief, made its decision “without adequate analysis under the National Environmental Policy Act.”
The brief also made the following allegations against the Forest Service:
• “The Forest Service’s refusal to discuss foreseeable greenhouse gas emissions or impacts on climate change was arbitrary and capricious.”
• “The Forest Service failed to consider the reasonably foreseeable climate impacts of clearcutting and biomass combustion.”
• “The Forest Service failed to adequately consider the Project’s likely impact on mycelium.” (Mycelium is the root-like structure of a mushroom.)
• “The Forest Service failed to prepare an (Environmental Impact Statement) as required by NEPA.”
“The Project will have significant adverse effects on petitioners and other residents of the Fryingpan Valley, who have concrete recreational, aesthetic, and economic interests in the project area,” Swomley’s Oct. 31 pleading said. “They hike, bike, swim and hunt mushrooms in the project area. They depend on income from tourists visiting for outdoor recreation. All of these recreational activities and interests would be impaired for many years. In the Forest Service’s best-case scenario, forest regrowth would take as long as a century; trees would ‘likely be in a seedlings structural stage’ for 40 years and would not reach maturity until 80 to 100 years after the timber harvest.”
A declaration of Swomley, which is attached to the pleading, said his family’s roots to the Upper Fryingpan Valley date back nearly 100 years ago when his grandfather furred and trapped coyote and mountain lion for the nearby sheep ranchers. The family now owns several cabins in the area, built in the 1890s. With “hundreds of logging trucks” passing “within 20 yards of several of my family’s cabins,” the project “will directly impact our safety and ability to enjoy spending time on our property,” Swomley’s declaration said, also adding that he leases his property to 20 outfitters for guided hunting trips.
Both Swomley and the U.S. Department of Justice Department’s Hayley Carpenter, who is identified as counsel for the Forest Service in its pleadings, could not be reached for comment this week.
Senior U.S. District Judge Marcia S. Krieger is presiding over the case.
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