A coalition of conservation groups Tuesday filed a motion to stop the U.S. Forest Service from using chain saws in two Southwest Colorado wilderness areas this summer while a lawsuit accusing the agency of violating federal law plays out in court.
“The (Forest Service) identified no compelling reason to implement (its decision),” according to the lawsuit. “Its imminence justifies emergency relief.”
The Forest Service announced in May it would skirt the protections in the Wilderness Act, which prohibits motorized use, to allow chain saws to clear downed bark beetle-killed trees across trails in the Weminuche and South San Juan wilderness areas.
Immediately after the decision, a coalition of conservation groups filed a lawsuit, arguing the Forest Service acted in secret and clearly violated the Wilderness Act. The conservation groups include the Great Old Broads for Wilderness, San Juan Citizens Alliance and Wilderness Watch.
Because the work is set to start this summer, the conservation groups filed Tuesday’s motion, asking the court to stop the Forest Service from beginning work until the lawsuit is settled.
Crews, equipped with chain saws, were supposed to start work over a six-week period between June 1 and Aug. 17. Regional Forester Brian Ferebe, however, pushed back that time line to July 8 through Aug. 30 as a result of heavy snow in the backcountry, according to a letter he sent to colleagues last week.
Conservation groups asked the court for what’s known as a “preliminary injunction,” which would freeze the project altogether until a court rules on the merits of the case.
The groups believe the Forest Service violated federal law by not involving public participation in its decision-making, by not conducting a full environmental analysis of the project and not meeting the minimum requirements it would take to justify granting an exception to the Wilderness Act for motorized use.
“Wilderness exists for its own sake,” said George Nickas with Wilderness Watch, at the time the lawsuit was filed. “It represents a piece of primitive America free of motors and technology that have allowed humans to dominate so much of the planet. It is not the role of the Forest Service to alter wilderness to appease impatient managers or visitors.”
About half of the Weminuche Wilderness, which is Colorado’s largest wilderness area at 500,000 acres, has been hit by the beetle outbreak over the past decade or so. In the 158,790-acre South San Juan Wilderness, about 60,600 acres have been affected.
In previous interviews, Forest Service officials have said trees are falling down at such a rate on trails that crews can’t keep up with hand saws. They believe this rationale justifies a waiver of the protections laid out in the Wilderness Act.
According to Forest Service documents obtained by the conservation groups through a Freedom of Information Act, and provided to The Durango Herald, about 470 miles of wilderness trails are obstructed in the Rio Grande and San Juan national forests.
Yet the convenience of trail users does not rise to meet the level it would take to bypass the Wilderness Act, the groups argue.
A spokesman with the Forest Service declined comment Tuesday.