by Christy Karras
The Salt Lake Tribune
Conservation groups won a battle against logging in Dixie National Forest with a court decision that halts a planned clear-cut on the Aquarius Plateau near Escalante.
The 10th Circuit Court of Appeals ruled Thursday that the U.S. Forest Service didn’t follow the best available science when it determined the logging project wouldn’t harm the area’s northern goshawk population. The goshawk is considered a “sensitive species,” which means its populations are declining and any decision about the forest must consider the effect on the species.
The plan was to log 3,307 acres of Englemann Spruce/sub-alpine fir and 669 acres of aspen forest, according to court documents. That would have included clear-cutting 440 acres of Englemann Spruce and 112 acres of aspen.
The Forest Service had argued that clear-cutting wouldn’t harm the goshawk population, which has gone from 68 nesting pairs in 1982 to 30 or fewer in 2002, the last year measured.
But that went against the recommendations of the report the Forest Service itself deemed to be the best available science overall, the court said. That report said thinning out trees, not clear-cutting, would be the best strategy to preserve habitat.
“The Forest Service presents no long-range scientific evidence supporting its assertion that the project will actually increase the number of northern goshawk in the Project area,” the court’s decision states.
The nonprofit Utah-based Aquarius Escalante Foundation and the Montana-based Ecology Center sued the Forest Service when it announced the logging plan in 2002.
The Forest Service said at the time the logging would help remaining trees resist attacks by spruce beetles, and that cutting aspen invaded by spruce and fir would help the forest regenerate. The project also would have reconstructed 17 miles of road.
Dixie National Forest officials were not available for comment Sunday, and it is not clear whether the agency will revamp the project and try again.
Michael Garrity, an Aquarius Escalante foundation board member, said clear-cutting the trees would have been “devastating” to wildlife, especially on the high-elevation Aquarius Plateau. “There are clear cuts in that area that were cut in the seventies that still haven’t grown back,” he said.
Garrity, a former Utah resident who now serves as executive director of the Montana-based Alliance for the Wild Rockies, also says the decision should serve as a warning that “if Congress says they have to follow the best science, then the Forest Service has to follow the best available science, and not just the parts they agree with.”