Beetles spread as suit delays spruce logging
GSPI News Editor
At least 2,000 more trees were infested by spruce beetles in Baylor Park this summer while environmentalists and the White River National Forest battled legally over a logging plan aimed at limiting a beetle outbreak.
A lawsuit filed last February by environmentalists helped keep the logging from beginning last summer in Baylor Park, which is southwest of Glenwood Springs, at the headwaters of Thompson Creek.
The logging is aimed partly at limiting beetle infestation following the blowdown of spruce across 2,000 to 3,000 acres during a windstorm in August 1999.
Dave Silvieus, district ranger for the Rifle Ranger District, said there’s no way of knowing the degree to which the logging might have fended off the infestation had it not been delayed.
“I don’t know if you could know definitively what the results would be, but it certainly would have been a factor in (controlling) the spread,” he said. “The benefits of early intervention have largely been lost.”
Rocky Smith, a staff member with Colorado Wild, one of the groups that sued over the logging, said he doubts whether logging would have gotten under way last summer anyway, because Forest Service employees were so busy fighting fires instead.
Still, Smith and other environmentalists say they are willing to go along with logging in Baylor Park, if the issues they raised in their lawsuit can be resolved.
At issue are impacts on wildlife, and the cumulative impacts of the Baylor logging project when taken together with other past and future logging in the area.
Seeking a settlement
The Forest Service and environmental groups are in out-of-court negotiations in an attempt to resolve the issues raised in the lawsuit. Silvieus said the agency made the groups another offer to resolve the matter, and was waiting to hear back.
Smith said the last he heard, the Forest Service made a “kind of fuzzy” offer and wanted to meet with environmental groups to detail it, but then canceled the meeting.
He believes the parties are supposed to meet with a magistrate in court on Jan. 28.
He said a settlement would be the easiest approach for everyone.
“We’ll keep trying to settle this but we’re going to need a decent offer. So far I don’t think we’ve seen one,” he said.
White River National Forest supervisor Martha J. Ketelle issued the agency’s decision on the Baylor Park logging in August 2001. It calls for the commercial salvage of blown-down trees and commercial thinning on more than 2,000 acres in the Baylor Park area, for a total volume of 11.3 million board feet.
Smith called that the size of the project “very large by Colorado standards.”
The Forest Service analyzed three alternatives for the project. Two involved salvaging damaged, down and dead timber. The one the agency chose would involve twice as much timber as any of the other alternatives, and would include commercial thinning of live trees. Environmentalists oppose this thinning.
The plan also involves construction or reconstruction of about 12 miles of roads.
Several environmental groups filed an administrative appeal of the project in October 2001. After the appeal was turned down, the Aspen Wilderness Workshop, Center for Native Ecosystems and Colorado Wild sued in federal court to try to halt the logging.
Environmentalists contend the Baylor Park logging violates the WRNF forest plan and national environmental laws. They say the Forest Service failed to fulfill its duty to monitor, and analyze impacts to, wildlife such as the lynx, Colorado River cutthroat trout and northern goshawk.
The threat takes wing
Silvieus considered this past summer a make-or-break year for fighting off beetles after the blowdown left trees susceptible to an outbreak.
The first year after such a blowdown, there’s not much beetle activity, he said. The next year they start to reproduce. It then takes a third year before they begin infesting other trees.
“This summer we had the major flight of beetles” to other trees in Baylor Park, he said.
Environmentalists contend that their appeals have done little to slow logging. Rather, said Smith, the busy fire seasons of 2000 and 2002 caused the Forest Service to be slow in producing a logging plan.
Environmental groups also question how effective logging is in controlling beetle outbreaks, and suggest the cure is worse than the disease.
Trees killed by beetles serve as perches for birds, and benefit the ecosystem when they rot and enrich the soil, he said. “The net result is if you try to log for the beetle attack you end up doing more damage than the beetle,” Smith said.
Environmentalists also argue that thinning a forest makes remaining trees more vulnerable to future windstorms, which could create a greater threat of beetle outbreaks.
Silvieus notes that the logging proposal is in an area that the new WRNF forest plan allocates for logging – an allocation environmentalists generally didn’t oppose.
“But yet when we tried to do it, they don’t think we’re doing it adequately, the right way.”
Smith said environmentalists may seek a deal allowing the Forest Service to do less logging than it wanted, and more careful monitoring of wildlife.
Silvieus said the Forest Service already had scaled back its original proposal to eliminate road construction in roadless areas.
Back to the drawing board
Silvieus said because of the delay in logging and increased infestation, the Forest Service will need to replan the project, giving environmentalists another chance to be involved.
Even if the logging is coming later than would have been ideal for beetle control, the project is still worthwhile to meet demand for wood products, Silvieus said.
Environmentalists say some of that demand can be met by beetle-killed trees, without requiring logging of live ones. Trees killed by beetles in the Flat Tops in the mid-1900s continue to be logged for house construction, they point out.
Silvieus believes the Baylor Park plan would provide the additional benefit of reducing fire danger there in dry summers such as 2002’s.
“If we had had a fire in there, it would have been really difficult to manage,” he said.
He also considers the logging important as a way of preserving diversity of tree species. Otherwise, he said, spruce trees could be depleted much as they were in the Flat Tops after the beetle outbreak there.
Silvieus said that after 24 years with the Forest Service, he’s used to dealing with appeals of logging projects, and even spending millions of dollars “planning sales that don’t go anywhere.”
“You get frustrated, but I just plan on them,” he said of the appeals.
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