Wolf Creek logging triggers lawsuit

Controversy is once again stirring in the vicinity of Wolf Creek Pass, and believe it or not, Texas developer Red McCombs is not responsible. Citizens and conservation groups are currently fighting a large logging proposal in the headwaters of the San Luis Valley.

Known as the County Line Timber Sale, the Forest Service has proposed logging 29 million board feet (7,250 truck loads) of spruce and fir trees from 1,556 acres in the Conejos River watershed. The remote timber sale would be adjacent to the South San Juan Wilderness and the Continental Divide Trail and is now the subject of a lawsuit.

A coalition of private landowners and conservation groups have filed suit against the sale, charging that the Forest Service failed to follow procedure to protect water resources, has not complied with wildlife requirements and ignored the cumulative effects of the logging.

“The Forest Service is degrading our public assets for the benefit of the extraction industries and disguising the activity as a ‘healthy forest’ policy,” said Randal McKown, an adjacent property owner and plaintiff on the lawsuit. “The effect of the County Line operation will be an ugly scar on an important recreational landscape for many generations of Americans.”

In addition to logging 1,556 acres, nearly 16 miles of inactive and recovering roads would have to be reconstructed to access the trees. The suit charges that the proposed logging area is critical to water production for downstream users and that the logging would damage Canada lynx habitat and a popular recreation area.

Gary Hopkins, president of the Pagosa Springs-based Wolf Creek Wheel Club, commented, “Numerous members of the Wolf Creek Wheel Club, who have mountain-biked the Continental Divide Trail between Cumbres Pass and the boundary of the South San Juan Wilderness say that this is perhaps the best ride in our region … The size and scope of the County Line Timber Sale will have dramatic aesthetic impacts on the area, including recreational values of the Continental Divide Trail and connecting roads and trails that are used by hikers, bicyclists, hunters and equestrians.”

The Forest Service claims the timber sale is necessary to reduce the risk and spread of spruce beetles, but Bryan Bird, Forest Guardians’ forest program director, sees the sale differently.

“This is a classic example of the misplaced priorities of the Bush Administration,” he said. “Here you have a proposal to log remote, relatively pristine forests that are critical for water production and provide recreational opportunities to a spectrum of people from all walks of life. The Forest Service should be focusing its limited funds on protecting communities from wildfire.”

The Forest Service refuses to comment on matters involving litigation.


County considers gas well doubling

An energy producer is again looking for La Plata County’s stamp of approval to double its number of local gas wells. Next Tuesday, the Board of County Commissioners will consider whether to again extend BP America an endorsement of the company’s push for 80-acre well spacing. La Plata County endorsed a similar proposal last fall.

In September of last year, BP received permission to double the number of wells on 65 square miles between Durango and Bayfield. The company is now looking to double its number of wells on 90 square miles in the vicinity of Ignacio.

Last fall, the commissioners voted unanimously to adopt a memorandum endorsing the company’s push for 80-acre well spacing. Two other oil and gas companies quickly followed with requests for the same privilege.

At the time, the board was accused of caving to the industry. Commissioner Wally White answered that allegation by listing the exactions the county received in exchange for the memorandum. BP was required to limit well pad sizes, drill from existing pads where possible, address air and water quality issues and deal with plugged and abandoned wells. “A lot of people feel like we rolled over to the industry, but I don’t think that’s the case at all,” White said at the time. “I think we got a very good deal.”

Whether that good deal will continue with BP is now up to public scrutiny. La Plata County will host a public meeting on Tues., July 11, at 6:30 p.m. in the Anasazi Room of the County Courthouse. County staff will present information in response to public comments received thus far and attendees will have

the opportunity to respond to the presentation and comment on the draft MOU.  A final draft of the MOU is scheduled to be on the business agenda for the July 25 La Plata County Commissioners meeting.


Vallecito mercury advisory clarified

The Colorado Division of Wildlife is recommending that citizens not panic about recent mercury concerns in Vallecito Reservoir. The state agency notes that mercury concerns only apply to northern pike and walleye.

In mid-June, the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment issued consumption advisories on fish caught at Vallecito Reservoir. The advisories provided warnings only for consumption of northern pike and not trout, kokanee salmon, bass, yellow perch and blue gill taken from the reservoir. However, not all species were tested by the health department. “Anglers should heed the advisories, but they should not be worried about fishing or eating those fish species not part of the advisory,” said Mike Japhet, senior aquatic biologist for the DOW’s southwest region. “The health advisories on pike and walleye are conservative in terms of human health – as they should be.”   Scientists believe reservoirs are contaminated by airborne mercury. It is undetectable in the water with standard testing techniques. The mercury, however, builds up in living organisms.

“Mercury accumulates in the tissue of fish at the top of the food chain – fish that eat other fish,” Japhet explained. “Northern pike and walleye are predators that eat all species of fish in the reservoir.”

Consumption advisories are issued when tissue samples show fish contain 0.5 parts per million. The complete advisory can be viewed on-line at:www.cdphe.state.co.us.


Salt Lake City air service begins

A new era in local airline service began last Saturday at the Durango-La Plata County Airport. Jet service linking Durango and Salt Lake City is now available.

The Delta Airlines flight is now available two times per day, year round. The Durango flights are being operated by Delta Connection partner Skywest Airlines using 50-seat Canadair CRJ 200 jets.

The added jet service by Delta is indicative of the growing demand for air service at Durango-La Plata County Airport, which is currently served by America West Express and United Express. With the addition of the Delta flights and new flights recently added by United and America West, there will be 14 flights departing daily from Durango.

“Strong passenger demand is what attracted Delta,” said Ron Dent, director of aviation at the airport. “We are filling a record-high percentage of outbound seats. Those high load factors combined with Delta’s connections to 110 cities from Salt Lake City and great customer service, point to the success of these new flights.”

The Durango-La Plata County Airport Commission welcomed the first flight July 1 with festivities including a ribbon-cutting ceremony and a welcoming archway of water from airport fire trucks.

– compiled by Will Sands