Steamboat Springs Environmental watch group Colorado Wild looks to appeal a U.S. Forest Service decision to thin trees in portions of two roadless areas in the Routt National Forest.
The thinning is part of an experimental plan to protect close to 5,700 acres of old-growth spruce trees from bark beetle infestation.
Colorado Wild forest watch director Rocky Smith said he is concerned about 1,100 acres proposed in the thinning project that spills into two roadless areas in North Routt County.
The group has until May 28 to make an appeal on the recently approved environmental impact statement concerning beetle suppression on the Routt forest.
The impact statement outlines the 5,700-acre thinning proposal. It also includes suppression work being done at the ski area and in high scenic-value areas.
Smith said an appeal will be made by Colorado Wild, as well as other groups, and will most likely be about the logging in the roadless areas.
Last year, former President Clinton signed a law that stopped road building and most logging in areas designated as roadless in U.S. forests.
The Forest Service plans to log 839 acres in the Dome Peak Roadless Area and 332 acres in the Nipple Peak South Roadless Area as part of the thinning process.
"Going into a roadless area, we think that is just bad," Smith said.
He also said he doesn't think the experimental plan to protect 5,700 acres of land from a spruce beetle epidemic will work.
"The spreading beetle population is just so large, nothing can be done about it," he said.
Andy Cadenhead, supervisory forester for the Forest Service, acknowledged that that plan might not work.
He said that saving an area this large by thinning has never been tried on this scale. But, he said, it's worth a try.
There are hundreds of thousands of acres of old-growth spruce in Routt National Forest, and as early as 10 years from now, all the mature spruce is likely to be killed by a spruce beetle epidemic that is currently sweeping the forest.
Some of the Forest Service's top researchers devised a plan to try to protect a small portion of old-growth spruce trees some of which could be 700-years-old.
The plan would thin trees in the 5,700 acres to increase the airflow. Beetles locate trees by pheromones and the Forest Service researchers believe better airflow in the 5,700 acres could detour beetles into more dense parts of the forest where the trees are easier to locate.
Thinning also means the trees still standing will be more vigorous, giving them a better chance of fighting off a beetle infestations if it occurs.
The Forest Service has tried this method in other beetle epidemics, however, they have not had much luck. Researchers believe the thinning failed in the past because it wasn't on a large enough scale.
The 5,700 acres proposed on the Routt National Forest would be the largest thinning effort attempted to suppress bark beetles, Cadenhead said.
"It's somewhat experimental, that's why we have research scientists helping out on this," he said.
If the plan were put into action and it works, the thinning procedure would be repeated on other forests during beetle infestations.
"One of the reasons is to protect our growth stock," Cadenhead said, acknowledging the Forest Service's role to maintain logging opportunities.
"But there are other benefits, too."
Wildlife dependent on spruce trees would thrive in the protected area.
The only problem is the only feasible old-growth stands that could be thinned spills into the two roadless areas.
"Given the choice, we would not enter into a roadless area. But we didn't find a place that would maximize our success without having some roadless areas involved," Cadenhead said.
Logging companies would be hired to do the thinning in the roadless areas, which is a red flag for environmental watch groups.
"We can't let the project go forward when they do that," said Ted Zukoski, an attorney with the Land and Water Fund of the Rockies.
Zukoski and Smith spent a few days last week in Steamboat Springs reviewing the environmental impact statement for beetle suppression.
Cadenhead is working with both Zukoski and Smith to solve some of the problems, and the three men appeared in front of the Steamboat Springs City Council to explain the issue.
Cadenhead said an appeal is always expected and ideally he'd like to see it is just limited to the thinning plan.
Zukoski and Smith can appeal the whole plan, which includes suppression work that the Forest Service has organized crews to do this summer.
It spent three years and nearly $1 million worth of planning to organize the work and finish the impact statement.
Once the appeal is filed, Forest Service Regional Forester Rick Cables will decide within 45 days if the appeal holds validity. If he allows the thinning, Smith and Zukoski can opt to sue the Forest Service to stop the logging.
Both Smith and Zukoski said it is too early to tell if the issue would warrant legal action.