To reduce the spread of beetles, the U.S. Forest Service is making use of new, more relaxed rules to rush through a logging project in the Flat Tops Wilderness.
The Little Box timber harvest, about 17 miles north of Silt off Buford Road, is being conducted under one of five new categorical exclusions, or CEs, that allow sales to go forward without an environmental review process. Jim Thinnes, timber program manager and silviculturalist for the White River National Forest, said he believes the project is the White River National Forest's first to make use of one of the new CEs.
Use of the exclusion means the project is not subject to administrative appeal and can be implemented immediately. The only recourse opponents have is to go to court.
By using the exclusion process, forest officials are trying to act quickly to counter a beetle outbreak in the Little Box Canyon area.
"Obviously, we're hoping it's going to make a difference," Thinnes said. "We are hopeful that we can kind of keep that in check in that particular part of the forest."
Rocky Smith, Forest Watch campaign coordinator with the environmental organization Colorado Wild, said he wasn't familiar with the Little Box project. It could be that the logging is warranted, he said. But he has a problem with the Forest Service's expanded allowance for CEs, which he describes as an attempt by the federal agency to streamline its regulatory process.
"In general, we don't like those CEs, as you can well imagine," he said.
Suzanne Jones, assistant regional director for the Wilderness Society in Denver, said some CEs already were allowed and are warranted in some minor projects. But expanding their use decreases the ability to resolve concerns through the appeals process, she said.
"I would imagine it would lead to increased lawsuits," she said. Thinnes said the need for the Little Box logging was created by a windstorm that blew down trees in the nearby Triangle Park area three summers ago. The storm left the downed trees susceptible to a beetle outbreak.
The Forest Service did some salvage logging work in Triangle Park in an attempt to limit the spread of beetles, but the insects spilled over into the Little Box area, Thinnes said.
Rifle District Ranger Dave Silvieus issued the Little Box project decision Aug. 18. The project area involves steep terrain, and helicopters will have to be used to log it, he said.
The Forest Service plans to remove infested and dead Engelmann spruce trees, while meeting guidelines for retaining some standing dead trees as wildlife habitat.
The area to be logged covers a total of about 300 acres, but only about 100 of those acres will be logged.
Under the new rules, the Forest Service can log up to 250 acres to combat the beetle infestation while being excluded from the normal environmental review process.
Smith said the Forest Service implemented the new rules this summer over objections from environmentalists.
Any one categorically excluded project may not be a big deal, he said, but "the Forest Service could do an unlimited number of these and have a cumulative impact."
There are no restrictions on how many exclusions could be invoked and how close together excluded projects could be, he said. But Thinnes said such projects have to be separate and unrelated. The Forest Service can't avoid environmental reviews for a larger timber project simply by dividing it up into smaller ones that don't exceed the acreage limits for categorical exclusions.
Baylor Park, revisited
Thinnes said the new categorical exclusion rules might have proven valuable in Baylor Park, southwest of Glenwood Springs, another area where the Forest Service has been fighting a beetle outbreak.
Spruce trees blew down in a 2,000- to 3,000-acre area during a windstorm in August 1999. The Forest Service pursued a salvage logging project there, but it stalled after environmentalists first appealed the decision, then filed a lawsuit. A settlement allowing limited logging was reached earlier this year.
Forest Service officials say thousands of trees were infested during the delay.
Under the new CE rules, the Forest Service could have started on the most severely infested 250 acres while the environmental review of the larger project continued, Thinnes said. "I guess I'd say that I don't know if it would have stopped it, but I think it would have made a difference," he said.