Log In

Reset Password
News Education Local News Nation & World New Mexico

Environmentalists sue over logging plans in San Juan National Forest

The Salter project, located on 22,346 acres near Dolores, was approved in 2021
Environmentalists are suing to stop the San Juan National Forest from implementing a plan that would open parts of the forest near Dolores for forest treatments including logging. The plan would target unhealthy trees, such as those that have succumbed to beetle kill. (Courtesy of Dan West)

San Juan Citizens Alliance, the Durango-based conservation group, and the Center for Biological Diversity filed a complaint this week in U.S. District Court of Colorado seeking to overturn a plan approved in 2021 by the San Juan National Forest to selectively log and thin 22,346 acres of land in the Mancos-Dolores Ranger District.

The project would benefit Dolores-area sawmills, impact the forest’s wildfire resiliency and potentially affect popular recreation areas such as Boggy Draw.

The two groups are seeking an injunction to halt the implementation of the project on the basis that the Forest Service violated the National Environmental Policy Act and the National Forest Management Act by failing to properly analyze both the impacts of the project and the alternatives suggested by the public.

“This lawsuit is about public process, and it’s about these (forest restoration) collaboratives and the NEPA process being more than information gathering – they’re supposed to influence the Forest Service’s decision, and they’re supposed to rigorously consider those,” said SJCA’s Public Lands Program Manager John Rader.

The project would involve single tree selection logging of ponderosa pines up to 26 inches in diameter, as well as commercial and pre-commercial thinning. It would also include the development of up to 117 miles of temporary roads in undisclosed locations.

Plaintiffs allege the Forest Service did not adequately detail the impacts of logging and road building, but painted the effects in broad strokes when conducting the requisite environmental analysis.

Environmentalist groups are suing the San Juan National Forest to block the Salter Vegetation Management Project, which would open up 22,346 acres of the Mancos-Dolores Ranger District for single tree selection logging and thinning. (Courtesy of San Juan National Forest)

In the Decision Notice and Finding of No Significant Impact written by then-District Ranger Derek Padilla, the agency indicated the primary purpose of the project was to increase forest resiliency.

The project would lead to the “development of stands that are less dense, reducing competition among remaining trees for sunlight, water and nutrients, which will create uneven-aged conditions in which the remaining trees become healthier and more vigorous,” Padilla wrote. “This will increase resiliency, making these areas less susceptible to insect and disease outbreaks and severe wildfire.”

Timber sales would not involve clear-cutting stands. Rather, less healthy trees would be selected for removal based on specific criteria to reduce the area of tree trunks in a given stand to 50 square feet per acre.

During the process of developing the project plan, many groups voiced objections. Concerns about increased truck traffic in Dolores and impact to mountain bike trails at Boggy Draw were addressed during the revision of the plan.

Environmentalists put forth an alternative that would have limited logging to trees no larger than 20 inches, rather than the 26-inch limit that was ultimately adopted. And although mention of it was included in the final environmental assessment, the plaintiffs say their alternatives were not adequately considered.

“NEPA doesn’t mandate a certain outcome,” Rader said. “But it does require that the Forest Service take a hard look at the environmental impacts, disclose them to the public and evaluate reasonable alternatives. And they didn’t, so that’s why we’re suing.”

A spokesperson for the SJNF said the agency does not comment on pending litigation.

The complaint also alleges that, despite the messaging around the project’s environmental impact, the Forest Service was influenced to propose the project by local members of the timber industry.

“Internal memos circulated within the Forest Service confirm the Salter Project was proposed for the sole purpose of supplying sawtimber to a local buyer,” the complaint says.

Rader declined to provide any more specific information about the allegation, other than to say that communication between Forest Service staff members obtained through a Freedom of Information Act request “stated that the focus of a project was timber.”

In the decision, Padilla wrote: “Economics was considered, but was only one of many factors.”

Although environmentalist groups hope to ensure the preservation of larger trees, Rader said the lawsuit is more about process than outcomes.

“If our preferred alternative was selected, there would be impacts on the ground: We would see more large trees in the Dolores district,” he said. “But that’s not really what this lawsuit is about.”


Reader Comments