GUNNISON, Colo.— The U.S. Forest Service trimmed more than 9,000 acres from a timber management project in the Gunnison National Forest after conservation groups objected to the proposal and the agency admitted that its analysis of the additional acres failed to comply with the law.
The Grand Mesa, Uncompahgre, and Gunnison National Forest issued its final decision Thursday for the Taylor Park Vegetation Management Project, southeast of Crested Butte. The Forest Service agreed to the group’s request to scale back the logging project from 29,095 acres to 19,943 acres. About 4,200 acres will be managed using controlled fire.
The agency also significantly reduced the project’s road mileage footprint and agreed to clarify the project’s impact on lynx habitat.
“Conservationists and the Forest Service were able to come to agreement, and the Forest Service removed significant acreage proposed for logging under the project, in return for us not further contesting the project,” said Matt Reed, public lands director at High Country Conservation Advocates. “The result is better forest management, a better understanding between the public and the agency, and a smaller project with fewer environmental impacts.”
In 2018 the Gunnison Ranger District initiated the public process to develop a large logging project in and around Taylor Park, a high-elevation basin on Colorado’s Western Slope that is home to Canada lynx, elk, black bears and world-class trout streams. Much of the project was supposedly intended to reduce dwarf mistletoe, a natural component of lodgepole forests.
The Forest Service originally proposed 109 miles of new road construction, clear-cut strips up to 300 feet wide, and the intrusion of industrial logging deep into the backcountry. Over the past two years conservation groups submitted technical comments, attended public meetings, advocated for community engagement and worked to develop a more targeted, less damaging proposal.
“This is a good day for wildlife and those who love the forests of Taylor Park,” said Ted Zukoski, an attorney at the Center for Biological Diversity. “The final project is smaller, lighter on the land and avoids clearcutting 9,000 acres of forest habitat.”
In February the Gunnison Ranger District released its final environmental assessment and draft decision for the project. On March 30 High Country Conservation Advocates, Center for Biological Diversity and independent consultant Rocky Smith filed an administrative objection, focusing on 9,000 acres of “contingency” areas that the Forest Service added to the proposal at the last minute.
The Forest Service didn’t disclose where, when or how these new areas would be logged. It also failed to disclose the potential harms from miles of road construction, skid trails and clearcuts across the landscape. To resolve the objection, the Service agreed to remove the 9,000 contingency acres from the decision.
“We were concerned about the effect of the proposed project on lynx, a threatened species under the Endangered Species Act,” said Rocky Smith, forest policy analyst and consultant. “We believe that the Forest Service underestimated the effect on lynx habitat from the proposed vegetation treatments. But after discussions, the agency agreed to remove the contingency treatment areas, with an unknown but potentially strongly negative impact to lynx, and to clarify the potential for the remaining treatments to degrade lynx habitat. We are pleased that we could come to an agreement on this issue.”
“Logging often has substantial ecological costs. It is the lead driver of carbon emissions from U.S. forests,” said Reed. “Carbon emissions from logging are 10 times higher than the combined emissions from wildfire and tree mortality from native bark beetles. Frank conversations about the Forest Service’s mandate to provide commercial timber must occur. In the meantime, the improvements to the Taylor Park project are a step in the right direction.”