Proposal sparks controversy

Appeals of decisions regarding forests could be affected

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— Sparring over a wildfire prevention act has pulled the bark beetle suppression work in the Routt National Forest into federal squabbling.

Through House Bill 5319, the Healthy Forest Act, introduced this month by Rep. Scott McInnis, R-Colo., spruce beetle suppression work could be approved without an option for the public to appeal and a chance for a federal judge to find compromises.

That's the same condition the Healthy Forest Act would place on high-risk wildfire lands in the forest, which is the act's original intention.

"If anyone wants to sue for the bark beetle project, they are out of luck," Land and Water Fund attorney Ted Zukoski said.

The beetle proposal is part of a rider, or addition, to the Healthy Forest Act meant for the Black Hills National Forest, drafted by Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle, D-S.D. The rider streamlines logging projects in designated areas in the Black Hills forest.

McInnis wrote into the rider that the same conditions will be made for bark beetle suppression work in the Routt National Forest.

"What's good for the goose is good for the gander," McInnis' spokesman Blair Jones said.

In other words, if Daschle can tag on a rider to appease interests in his home state, so can McInnis, Jones said. He added that if the effects of the rider are too broad sweeping, then it's Daschle's language that should be blamed.

"If Tom Daschle can apply this rider to South Dakota, why can't we? What's good for South Dakota is good for Colorado," Jones said.

McInnis' interest is to take actions to suppress a spruce beetle epidemic in the Routt National Forest without being impeded by appeals from conservation groups. Forest officials have said there are hundreds of thousands of acres of old-growth spruce trees in the Routt National Forest. In as early as 10 years from now, all the mature spruce are likely to be killed by a spruce beetle epidemic currently sweeping the forest.

"The problem is that the clock is ticking here," Jones said.

If a portion of the forest needs to be thinned to stop beetles from spreading, that action must be taken quickly, he said.

Conservation groups don't see McInnis acting purely out of the interest of the forest.

"I think it's pretty much a stick in the eye to Sen. Daschle," Zukoski said. "We really think there isn't any justification for exempting this project from environmental law."

Conservation groups feel the same way about all of the Healthy Forest Act. Proposing to cut the appeals process and skipping over what they believe as environmental law to log high-risk burning areas isn't needed.

Conservation groups often ask for judicial review through the appeals process over proposed logging projects. That review sometimes offers a compromise that's good for both sides.

In May, Zukoski and company appealed logging in a roadless area proposed for bark beetle suppression. They successfully came to a compromise with the U.S. Forest Service on one of their concerns, which would keep suppression impacts at a minimum in roadless areas.

The Healthy Forest Act could eliminate that option on any future thinning proposals for high-risk wildfire areas and bark beetle suppression.

"It's always hard to know what the intent of the legislation is when proposed," Hahns Peak/Bears Ears District Ranger Kim Vogel said. "It appears Mr. McInnis is supportive of what we are trying to do. We are glad that he wants to help."

Vogel said it still isn't clear what, if anything, will get voted into law on this matter. Appeals for logging projects do bog down the agency, but she said the public's ability to have a voice in decision-making is important.

The Routt National Forest beetle suppression work includes 5,750 acres of thinning in Coulton Creek, Floyd Peak and Red Creek. About 300 acres of that has been burned by wildfire this summer, so officials will analyze that situation and make changes where necessary, Vogel said.

Suppression also calls for identifying where the epidemic is spreading in a 259,000-acre suppression zone. It could call for future thinning and logging proposals in that area to control the epidemic.

The Healthy Forest Act is still being discussed in subcommittee. It could be voted into law by the end of the year.

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