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Forest Service under fire

Agency faces suit over fires, failure to protect species

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Timber groups have borrowed a tactic from environmentalists — suing the federal government for not protecting endangered species.

Six Utah county governments and the Independent Forest Productions Association, based in Portland, Ore., have joined a Montana forester to sue the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and U.S. Forest Service, saying the lack of timber harvesting is negatively impacting endangered species.

In an ironic twist to the ongoing battle between timber interests and the government, Juab, Millard, Piute, Sanpete, Sevier and Wayne counties signed on to the 60-day notice of intent to sue for failure to abide by the Endangered Species Act. The notice was filed last week.

Specifically, the group claims the federal agencies failed to consider the negative consequences to species from massive wildfires and insufficient timber salvage harvest in the final environmental impact statement for the South Manti project within the Manti-La Sal National Forest.

"The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service apparently assumed in the South Manti Project consultations that only logging could harm a species. This agency attitude, which has been fostered by numerous radical preservation groups, is ridiculous," the group contended in a prepared statement.

Patrick Connell, a forester who lives in Montana, said wildfires are exacerbated by the lack of road access for suppression and a generally poor forest health condition.

"When blow-up fire conditions like we are experiencing this year throughout the West can kill whole herds of elk, there is little chance for survival of other listed threatened or endangered species. The truth is that large wildfires kill wildlife," he said.

Tex Olsen, chairman of the Sevier County Commission, said his group joined the lawsuit because it believes there should be multiple and mutual uses of forest assets.

"That includes recreation, grazing, timber harvesting, mining. All can be made compatible," Olsen said.

"The problem in the past has been that those who rely heavily on the Endangered Species Act to advance environmental causes say timber harvest takes away animal habitat. Actually what happens is, when you take out the dead timber, which has a commercial value, it also reduces the fuel that has helped produce so many of these intense fires.

"When you reduce those kinds of fires, it actually protects the animals.

"We just feel the Forest Service needs to take a closer look at timber management as a way of working in support of the Endangered Species Act, instead of against it. Up till now the Forest Service has been reluctant to do so because of the intense opposition of environmental groups."

On the South Manti plateau, the old growth spruce forests have become the target of a massive bark beetle epidemic for the past decade. About 90 percent of the spruce trees with a diameter greater than 11 inches at breast height are dead, the group stated.

Yet the Forest Service plans to execute salvage operations on only 10 percent of the total affected area.

The group complains that the risk to watersheds, wildlife, migratory waterfowl as well as endangered species' critical habitat is extreme.

Connell said some green spruce trees in the South Manti withstood the beetle attack. But wildfires threaten to destroy them.

"There is a great opportunity to learn how these trees beat off the beetles, but only if a massive fire in the area doesn't burn these groves and individual trees," he said. "These beetle survivors could restock the area with beetle-resistant progeny."

E-mail: donna@desnews.com; gtwyman@desnews.com