Missionary Ridge logging heads to court
Colorado Wild files lawsuit days before first sale goes out to bid

Partially burned trees dot the landscape along Missionary Ridge Road, which is still closed to public access. A plan to log the burn area was approved by the Forest Service last summer despite objections from environmental groups. In a last-ditch effort to halt the current logging plan, Colorado Wild filed a lawsuit last week, seeking an injunction on the first timber sale, which was slated to start this month./Photo by Todd Newcomer.

Although the Missionary Ridge Fire has been out for more than a year, debate over logging in the burned area still rages, now reaching as far as federal court. On Dec. 24, a mere few days before the San Juan National Forest was to put the area’s first timber sale out to bid, Colorado Wild filed a lawsuit in U.S. District Court in Denver, claiming that the logging violates the National Environmental Policy Act and the National Forest Act.

A lawyer for Colorado Wild, a Durango-based environmental group, said he hopes to gain a preliminary injunction sometime in the next two weeks that would halt the sale until the case can be heard.

“We’d likely request a preliminary injunction because it’s such a short time line,” said Colorado Wild lawyer Geoff Hickox. “Typically, a judge will rule right or shortly afterward.”

Although Colorado Wild is listed as the sole plaintiff, Jeff Berman, executive director of Colorado Wild, said the lawsuit is on behalf of conservation groups throughout the state.

“We work in partnership with all the other environmental groups in Colorado,” he said, adding that certain groups focus on certain areas so as not to duplicate efforts. “Colorado Wild works on timber sales, and other conservation groups look to us to address this kind of stuff.”

He said although his group objects to the logging on many levels, the lawsuit deals only with areas of the plan that may break the law – namely road construction, steep slope logging and lack of mitigation measures, which all could lead to a sullied watershed and NEPA violations.

“There is a difference between concerns and violations of the law,” he said. “Only violations of the law are included in the lawsuit.”

The salvage logging sale was approved in mid-July and called for the speedy harvest of 13.4 million board feet of dead and dying timber on approximately 3,388 acres, including 1,300 acres of land deemed “high erosion hazard areas” by Colorado Wild. The decision also called for the reconstruction of 76 miles of existing roads and construction of 3 new miles of temporary roads. Since early spring, the sale has been on a fast track in order to harvest the burned timber before it rots and loses value.

However, the lawsuit is likely to change all that, according to Dave Dallison, timber program leader with the San Juan Public Lands Center.

“The first sale was due to be advertised any day,” said Dallison on Monday. “(The lawsuit) definitely will cause a delay, which is a concern because dead timber deteriorates.”

According to Dallison, ponderosa pine, for example, loses its value within 18 months. He added that depending on whether a judge grants the injunction, the delay could push timber harvest into the spring and summer, when the ground is more vulnerable.

“We were hoping to do logging in the winter, operating up on the snow, but the delay will push logging toward summer, which is unfortunate,” he said.

Aside from losing time, Dallison said for every moment the timber is allowed to sit, the public is losing money as well.

“The more it deteriorates, the more the taxpayer loses,” he said.

However, Berman said if the salvage logging goes through as planned, taxpayers stand to lose even more in the form of water quality, erosion and wasted reseeding efforts.

A partially charred tree tagged with a blue marker stands on Missionary Ridge Road. Under a plan approved by the Forest Service last summer, more than 3,000 acres of burned forest would be salvage logged./Photo by Todd Newcomer.

“We as taxpayers paid to reconstruct Missionary Ridge Road – a tremendous amount – even though its main use for the next several years is only going to be for logging,” he said. “The same goes for aerial seeding. Taxpayers have spent money to control erosion and get vegetation growing. Logging will undermine those efforts.”

Of chief concern to Berman is steep slope logging, which would pluck trees from the more vertical areas using helicopters.

“We don’t have a lot of steep slope logging in Southwest Colorado, and wisely so,” he said.

According to Berman such logging practices in other areas have led to massive erosion and mudslides, which in turn taints water supplies with run-off. “Generally, it’s not advisable,” he said.

Additionally, Berman noted that steep slope logging can be a double–edged sword in that it costs more and forces loggers to cut corners – namely mitigation. He added that the low value of the burnt timber also may cause loggers to cut costs.

“Because of the low value of the burnt timber, it’s not likely mitigation will be adhered to,” he said.

And while Dallison said that loggers are required to reseed areas they impact, Berman maintains that mitigation measures in the Forest Service’s Final Environmental Impact Statement were cut out or worded in such a way that they appear voluntary.

“They contain disclaimers like ‘should’ and ‘if possible’ 85 amounting to what are essentially optional measures,” he said.4

However, Berman said the main worry comes not from the logging itself, but creating access to the logging areas.

“Roads are known to be the greatest source of erosion,” he said. “The Forest Service did not account for this in their decision.”

All in all, Berman said in going ahead with the logging, the Forest Service ignored recommendations not only from his group, but others, including the Environmental Protection Agency.

However, Dallison said the Forest Service did all it could to address concerns over the logging plan given the compressed timeframe.

“We started with a proposal that was pretty reasonable, covering only 5 percent to 6 percent of the burn area,” he said. The Forest Service also had a “lengthy” conference call with the EPA to discuss concerns over the watershed and hired an independent consultant – a “national expert,” according to Dallison – to address the issue.

“Most concerns were resolved at that time,” he said. “We came to agreement with just about everyone except Colorado Wild. We felt pretty good about the work that was done.”

Dallison also said that a Forest Service study found watershed concerns unfounded, and that the logging may even help mitigate erosion.

“Our analysis shows no effects or positive effects to the watershed,” he said of the logging effort, which he expects to last from one to three years.

Nevertheless, Berman sees the undertaking, on already sensitive soils, as risky as best.

“This is not a time to exacerbate water problems, not a place to be taking risks,” he said.

He adds that the lawsuit is not an attempt to shut down logging all together, but to ensure that the Forest Service goes about it the right way.

“You can have some wood fiber logging for homes and to create jobs, it just has to be done sustainably,” he said. “But this is the epitome of unsustainability: a lot of timber that has to be logged in a short time in the wrong place.”






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