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RGNF timber project appealed

Posted: Tuesday, Jun 2nd, 2009

Group sues for new ruling



SAN LUIS VALLEY — After scientists, environmentalists, and the government spent years of rehabilitating the lynx population in the Rocky Mountains, Colorado Wild headquartered in Durango and WildEarth Guardians based in Santa Fe, New Mexico are filing an appeal to stop the Handkerchief Mesa Timber Project on behalf of the small wild cats claiming that the timber project will impact the species negatively.

“Sometimes bad ideas keep coming back. Such is the case with the recently approved Handkerchief Mesa Timber Sale on Rio Grande National Forest near Wolf Creek Pass,” Colorado Wild had posted on their website. “More than 10 years in the making, the Handkerchief Mesa project would result in more than 3,400 acres of high elevation logging in a vital lynx movement corridor, several sensitive watersheds, and popular backcountry ski terrain.”

Put together by University of Denver law students under the direction of Environmental Law Clinic director Michael Harris, the suit is a 17-page complaint that the Rio Grande National Forest will be hurt by the timber project, although the U.S. Forest Service has gone through all necessary paperwork and channels for approval of the project.

The lawsuit directly challenges the decision put forth by the U.S. Forest Service, the Secretary of Agriculture, the Chief Forrester of the U.S. Forest Service, and the District Ranger of the Rio Grande National Forest.

The Handkerchief Mesa Timber Project was approved for the U.S.F.S. to log approximately 3,500 acres.

Colorado Wild and WildEarth Guardians are claiming that the forest service violated the National Environmental Policy Act and that logging that area will substantially degrade the environment in question. “The Forest Service adopted a logging plan in a forest ecosystem that is already degraded as a result of past human disturbance,” according to the Petition for Review of Agency Action.

“Past logging has resulted in soils that are severely prone to erosion and landslide, and, as a result, the streams in this area are impacted by excess sediment and silt.”

They have also accused the Forest Service of having no plan to restore the area in the future and using outdated information to determine the cutting areas. Colorado Wild and WildEarth Guardians claimed the Forest Service failed to take into consideration the Spruce Budworm infestation. “Overall, the Forest Service’s Timber Project, which amounts to an illegal ‘chop the trees to save the forest’ plan, will be a major setback for ongoing soil and timber recovery, at a time when restoration should be the focus.”

The plaintiffs are requesting that the Forest Service rescind its decision of approval, force compliance with NEPA, give the plaintiffs the cost of litigation, including expert witness fees and attorney fees, and that the court grants the plaintiffs further relief as necessary and appropriate as the court deems necessary.

In a Recommendation Memorandum for Handkerchief Mesa Timber Decision Notice, Sharon T. Friedman, appeal-reviewing officer, said “The Handkerchief Mesa Timber Environmental Assessment was prepared and released for public review and comment on March 13, 2007. The EA described the alternatives of the proposed action and the effects those alternatives may have on the environment.” The notice authorizing the implementation of the project was signed on June 2, 2008.

“My review of the record indicates that the Handkerchief Mesa project meets the direction set forth in NEPA in regards to ‘hard look’ at all of the relevant natural resource issues, not just soil stability in the treatment areas,” Friedman reported to the appeal-deciding officer at the United States Department of Agriculture.

“The appellants seem to have misunderstood the [Rio Grande National Forest] Plan threshold for taking a closer look at streams in watersheds that have a certain mount of disturbance (less than 15 percent) during a project time period.” Friedman also said the appellants are using historical reference as a starting point dating back as far as 1952 and 1978. They also included some pre-commercial thinning done in 1990.

The lynx area in question is an area called Campo Molino. According to Friedman, “Appellants question the exclusion of the Campo Molino sale unit from the design criteria [of the timber project], but do not specify why mitigation is needed in all 7 project areas,” she wrote. “The Biological Assessment explains that ‘based on snow tracking data, lynx have used the Thunder Sale Area for movement...however, the Campo Molino Sale area probably contributes minimally to overall lynx movement due to its small size and adjacency to the Pass Creek Road.”

Friedman said the project has effectively addressed any concerns of further reduction or “perpetuating unsuitable lynx habitat conditions” within the area.

Friedman suggested the U.S. Department of Agriculture affirm her findings.

In a letter to Colorado Wild, Dan Dallas, forest supervisor and center manager, wrote. “The Reviewing Officer, based on review of the record, found no evidence of the decision violating law, regulation or policy, and recommended the decision be affirmed. After my review of the appeal record, I concur with the Appeal Reviewing Officer’s recommendations and I adopt and incorporate it into my decision...My decision constitutes the final administrative determination of the Department of Agriculture.”

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