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Unless environmentalists protest, work will begin soon in preparation for a massive logging operation in southwestern Utah forests.

U.S. District Judge J. Thomas Greene last week paved the way for Dixie National Forest to go ahead with the Sidney Valley Recovery Project, which would sell roughly 22 million board-feet of bark-beetle infested timber near Brian Head ski resort.Greene rejected efforts to stop the sale by the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance, Friends of the Dixie and Native Ecosystems, whose appeals have postponed the harvest since March 1994.

"We are extremely pleased," said Forest Supervisor Hugh Thompson. "We agree with Judge Greene's statement that the continuation of the status quo would mean the continued loss of the old-growth spruce forest."

Dixie officials say that up to 90 percent of the large-diameter Englemann spruce trees in some parts of the forest have been killed by the beetles. Drought weakened the trees and forest officials blame the high mortality rate on forest density and the fact that most of the trees are the same age.

They say the best way to halt the infestation is to cut the dead, dying and vulnerable trees.

Environmental groups say this rationale is flawed and they've fought the harvest for nearly a year and a half. They maintain the project is really aimed at salvaging the timber industry, not saving the forest.

SUWA attorney Heidi McIntosh said Greene's ruling has not altered that opinion. She is considering an appeal of the judge's decision to the 10th Circuit Court in Denver, which could scuttle the current logging plans.

She believes a harsh winter might kill the beetles and hopes a natural intervention will prompt Greene to reconsider.