Colorado Wild and WildEarth Guardians filed suit challenging the Handkerchief Mesa timber sale on the Rio Grande National Forest, represented by the Environmental Law Clinic at the University of Denver Sturm College of Law.
The U.S. Forest Service proposes to manage timber and road resources in the Handkerchief Mesa Landscape, with various treatments including harvesting of 10 to 13 million board feet of timber, prescribed burning, and road management.
The area runs from the town of South Fork to the Continental Divide, from Hwy 160 and Wolf Creek Pass on the west to Beaver Mountain, Willow Park and Crystal Lakes on the east.
Wolf Creek Pass, Colorado (Photo by Mr. Bill OKC)
"This is the headwaters of the Rio Grande and deserves the most cautious management," said Bryan Bird, public lands director at WildEarth Guardians.
"Pushing a logging project in the worst lumber market in history is simply foolish, especially when our national forests provide higher value to Americans in clean water, recreation and fighting climate change," said Bird.
The Rio Grande is formed by the joining of several streams at the base of Canby Mountain, just east of the Continental Divide. It flows through the San Luis Valley, then south into New Mexico through Albuquerque and empties into the Gulf of Mexico.
The Handkerchief Mesa timber sale is near Wolf Creek Pass, one mile east of the Continental Divide. The plaintiff groups point out that this forest is still recovering from clearcuts and over-logging in the second half of the 20th century. Yet the Forest Service approved an additional 3,400 acres of logging last year.
The plaintiffs say that soils in the Handkerchief Mesa area are prone to erosion and landslide, and, as a result, area streams continue to be impacted by excess sediment from past logging and road construction.
The Handkerchief Mesa timber sale threatens the soil health and hydrology of this already fragile area, they say.
"Why trade off environmental health with timber production when you can have both?" asks Ryan Bidwell, executive director of Colorado Wild.
"With all the effort being invested by stakeholders throughout Colorado to come together and work to develop consensus-based recommendations for responsible forest management, it is frustrating to see the Forest Service continue to implement an outdated and damaging agenda," says Bidwell.
As Colorado's forests face the largest insect outbreak in recent history, the Forest Service needs to focus its scarce resources on protecting human lives and infrastructure, say Bidwell and Bird.
Scientists agree that insect epidemics are largely natural and impossible to suppress. Logging projects such as Handkerchief Mesa, far from any community, will simply aggravate stressed forests and a stressed federal treasury.
There is growing consensus that fire hazard reduction around Colorado's communities should be a priority for lands managers, but the Handkerchief Mesa timber sale is far from any community. The nearest city is South Fork, 12 miles away.
"Colorado's forests and its people are ready to restore healthy forests and create resilient communities, but projects like Handkerchief Mesa just keep taking us further from that reality."
Meanwhile, Monday in Santa Fe, New Mexico, WildEarth Guardians drew support for the protection of all high mountain headwaters from mayors of cities along the river.
Mayor Martin Chavez of Albuquerque held a press conference on the Rio Grande drawing the connection between municipal prosperity and preservation of New Mexico's headwaters.
"In Albuquerque we share the belief that clean water is one of our greatest assets and that we should be pro-active in securing the quality and quantity of our water supplied for our own health and the health of our landscapes, by settling the highest water quality standards possible for our very best waters," said Mayor Chavez.
The Rio Grande at Albuquerque, New Mexico (Photo by Minie Gonzalez)
"The statewide Outstanding Headwaters petition has the potential to keep the cleanest waters in New Mexico clean in perpetuity and maintain the health of our landscape in the Land of Enchantment, and I strongly encourage the Water Quality Control Commission to adopt the statewide headwaters designation," said Mayor Chavez.
New Mexico Governor Bill Richardson marked Earth Day 2008 by moving to protect all surface waters within national forest wilderness and inventoried roadless areas in New Mexico - amounting to more than 5,300 miles of headwaters streams that flow from mountain forests.
Designation of these waters as Outstanding National Resource Waters under the Federal Clean Water Act will ensure these headwater streams remain pristine and protected far into the future, the governor said.
In Albuquerque Monday, attendees at the press conference gathered in front of a large banner of support for the Outstanding Waters initiative, including petition signatures, handwritten letters, thank you notes and citizen-submitted photos of wild places and water worth protecting.
"Protecting headwaters is certainly important. Protecting the water as it proceeds along its path as it flows from rivulets to tributaries to major streams and rivers is also important especially now that many large communities are depending on river water as part of their water supply," said Sigmund Silber, Sierra Club Rio Grande Chapter water issues chair.
Said Bird, "Protecting New Mexico's headwaters as outstanding will guarantee clean water in perpetuity. Following the lead of other western states and securing water quality protection in New Mexico is in the best interest of our wildlife, traditional communities and all downstream New Mexicans."
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