Steamboat Springs Environmental watch groups filed two appeals to a U.S. Forest Service decision to try to control a spruce beetle outbreak because it encroaches on roadless areas in the Routt National Forest.
All suppression work is now on hold in the Routt National Forest to control a spruce beetle epidemic that could kill all mature spruce trees on hundreds of thousands of acres of land.
The appeals are in response to two elements of the Routt National Forest's Bark Beetle Project. One allows thinning in 1,100 acres of two roadless areas in North Routt County. The other lets heavy equipment enter one-third of all roadless areas.
Conservation groups believe both actions would have violated the Roadless Area Conservation Rule, adopted by the Clinton administration in January 2001. A federal court decision in May 2001 halted that rule. It is now being appealed.
Conservation groups consider the Routt National Forest logging decision to be the first time the Forest Service has approved commercial logging the rule would have prohibited.
Hahns Peak/Bears Ears District Ranger Kim Vogel said the decision does not break the roadless rule or any other policy the agency has been given.
"We are following our forest plan," she said.
No roads would be built in the roadless areas, she said.
The logging and the large equipment use in roadless areas are each part of two separate plans in the Routt National Forest's Bark Beetle Project.
The Forest Service wants to log some trees in the 1,100 acres of roadless land as part of a larger thinning plan that would protect about 5,700 acres of old-growth spruce trees.
Ted Zukoski, a lawyer for the Land and Water Fund who helped write the appeals, said the attempt to save the 5,700 acres of land isn't worth crossing a roadless line.
"There is very little evidence that this will even work and the Forest Service admits to that," Zukoski said.
Andy Cadenhead, supervisory forester for the Forest Service, acknowledged in an interview two weeks ago that plan might not work. However, he said if it does, the 5,700 acres would be the only old-growth stand left in the Routt National Forest once the beetle infestation sets in.
Vogel said there is proof in pine stands that thinning can detour a beetle epidemic, which is why the decision was made.
In the other appeal, the heavy equipment use in one-third of all roadless areas is part of a suppression plan that allows crews to take quick suppression measures in high scenic places where beetle infestation has been identified.
"There is no limitation on the use of equipment," Zukoski said.
The appeal also calls for all suppression actions to cease until the appeal is decided on in July. That causes a bit of a problem for the Forest Service. "With the suppression, we need to move. At some point it will be too late," Vogel said.
However, she said an appeal to the project was expected.
The suppression work includes work at the Steamboat Ski Area, Buffalo Pass and Rabbit Ears. The hope is to catch beetle outbreaks early in these areas and suppress them before they spread.
Zukoski said he understands the community has a vested interest in controlling the spruce beetle infestation. In fact, he worked with locals John Randolph and John Spezia on the appeals.
Zukoski said he has an open door to the Forest Service to work these issues out quickly.
Vogel said the Forest Service's door has always been open and that it has already worked with some of the groups appealing, which include Colorado Wild and the Center for Native Ecosystems.
Forest Service Regional Forester Rick Cables will decide if the appeal holds validity within 45 days. The conservation groups may choose to take legal action if the decisions aren't overturned.