Missionary Ridge logging halted
Federal judge cites insufficient Forest Service analysis

A thick curtain of clouds moves over a burned hillside near Missionary Ridge east of Durango on Monday. Last Friday, a federal judge issued a preliminary injunction on salvage logging in the burn area until impacts on widllife can be assessed./Photo by Todd Newcomer.

A federal judge has blocked the salvage logging of Missionary Ridge, and local conservationists are celebrating a major victory. On the other side of the table, the San Juan National Forest is disappointed in the recent court order and is contemplating its next move.

Last Friday, a federal judge officially halted the massive logging operation scheduled to begin this week on the Missionary Ridge burn area immediately northwest of Durango. Judge Zita Weinshienk signed a preliminary injunction in response to a recent lawsuit by local conservation organization Colorado Wild. The order was based on the likelihood that the lawsuit would succeed because of insufficient analysis of wildlife impacts by the local Forest Service. The preliminary injunction has halted any logging on Missionary Ridge until the case can be fully heard in court.

“I think it’s a very significant victory,” said Geoff Hickox, the attorney representing Colorado Wild. “Preliminary injunctions are often very difficult to obtain, and they often create significant momentum for the case.”

In mid-July of last year, San Juan National Forest Supervisor Mark Stiles announced his approval of the logging of dead and dying timber in the Missionary Ridge burn area. The decision called for the speedy harvest of 13.4 million board feet of timber on approximately 3,388 acres. A combination of ground-based, helicopter and skyline logging systems would be used to log pine, spruce, fir and aspen. Much of the logging would have resulted in clear-cuts. The Forest Service admitted that the timber sale was on a fast track in an effort to harvest the timber before its value is lost to deterioration.

Missionary Ridge looms over County Road 246 east of Durango along Florida Road. The Forest Service had approved massive salvage logging and often clear cutting of the burn area./Photo by Todd Newcomer.

However, opponents charged that the fast track led to sloppy analysis and neglect for public concerns. Consequently, a coalition, headed up by Colorado Wild and including the San Juan Citizens’ Alliance, the Wilderness Society, the Pine River Valley Nordic Ski Club, and private citizens appealed the decision Sept. 2. When the Forest Service rejected the appeal, Colorado Wild filed suit Dec. 23, citing unacceptable impacts to wildlife, water quality and erosion that would arise from logging.

Jeff Berman, Colorado Wild executive director, commented, “The Bush administration Forest Service is spending our tax dollars pushing massive, unsustainable logging operations like this that don’t protect homes from fire, only provide jobs for a short period of time and harm water quality for municipalities like Bayfield.”

When Judge Weinshienk signed the preliminary injunction she looked only at the first of Colorado Wild’s claim – that the Forest Service had not adequately analyzed impacts to wildlife. Concluding that Colorado Wild has a “substantial” likelihood of winning its lawsuit on the wildlife issue, Judge Weinshienk chose to not rule on water quality impacts and faulty analysis issues at this time.A0

“We were able to persuade the court that the Forest Service had taken a shortcut and approved logging that would have significant impacts without adequately monitoring threats to wildlife,” Hickox said.

Berman added that the absence of wildlife monitoring is nothing new for logging in the San Juan National Forest. “This decision is significant throughout the San Juan National Forest as a whole because it is the judicial branch of the government telling the Forest Service that they have been negligent in their duties to ensure protection of wildlife on this forest for the last 20 years,” he said.

Comments on the preliminary injunction from the Forest Service have been brief because the matter involves litigation. However, Dave Dallison, timber program leader for the San Juan National Forest, said that the agency is disappointed and that the taxpayer will lose money as a result of the delay. Dallison has said that the Forest Service had hoped that logging would begin on Missionary Ridge last fall in order to harvest the timber before its value is lost to deterioration.

“It’s kind of a big deal in this case because of the deterioration of the timber,” Dallison said. “With Missionary Ridge, any delay is costing the taxpayer money.”

Dallison also referenced a prepared Forest Service statement on the decision, which stated, “To retain the timber value of the wood fiber, the salvage sale must occur sooner than later. The burned aspen trees will retain quality as wood fiber for about two more years, but the conifers will lose more and more value the longer they stand and may have little value for sawlogs after the summer of 2004.”

Berman countered that according to his read of the judge’s decision, the Forest Service may as well write off any logging of conifers on Missionary Ridge. He argued that because of the preliminary injunction, the Forest Service must now conduct a thorough wildlife analysis of the Missionary Ridge burn area.

“It would take at least one year to get population data,” Berman said. “To get an understanding for trends, you would have to get a data over at least two years.”

Berman added that Colorado Wild is not the antagonist in this case, but said that faulty analysis by the San Juan National Forest is to blame. He noted that of all the salvage sales in Colorado, Missionary Ridge was the only one to inadequately assess impacts and the only one that drew major opposition.

“The San Juan National Forest’s own negligence over the last 20 years is to blame for this,” he said. “You simply don’t undertake logging without assessing impacts to wildlife.”

The Forest Service now has several options for dealing with the preliminary injunction. It can either appeal the decision, abandon the sale or pursue a settlement. Dallison said the agency has yet to make a decision.

“There are a number of options including appeal that are being considered,” he said.

Judge Weinshienk’s decision, Colorado Wild’s Complaint for Injunctive Relief initiating the lawsuit, and related court filings are all available online at www.coloradowild.org/fwc/.






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