The U.S. Forest Service issued a decision on March 8, 2013, finding the "vegetation improvement and salvage project" would have no significant impacts. The decision also allows reconstruction and maintenance of 36 miles of road and construction of 9.6 miles of temporary roads to facilitate logging activities.
According to the Forest Service, the project targets approximately 4,600 acres that are in need of thinning to aid growth and health and improve the mix of tree types; are populated by trees damaged by bark beetle infestations; or are areas in need of reforesting due to 1960s-era harvests.
"While the proposed treatments are designed to improve forest health, there is a need to provide valuable commercial forest products to the public," the Forest Service also noted in a 2010 scoping notice for the project.
Erin O'Connor, communication director for the U.S. Forest Service's Intermountain Region, said the officials had not yet seen the lawsuit and thus could not comment.
The two conservation groups, both based in Montana, contend the Forest Service's conclusion allowed it to sidestep preparation of an Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) and violates the National Environmental Policy Act, the National Forest Management Act which requires it to protect biodiversity and the Administrative Procedure Act.
"Once again, the federal government acts like our nation's laws don't apply to them," said Mike Garrity, executive director of the Alliance for the Wild Rockies, in a statement.
The proposed timber sale is located about 15 miles northwest of Escalante and includes several hundred acres of old-growth forest, according to the two groups. Dead trees in the area are home to beetles that are food for three-toed woodpeckers, the conservation groups said.
"Goshawk and three-toed woodpecker populations are both declining, so it makes no sense to stress them more by cutting down what little old-growth forests remain in southern Utah," said Sara Jane Johnson, a former Forest Service wildlife biologist and director of the Native Ecosystems Council, in a statement. "Otherwise, they will drive them onto the Endangered Species List."
According to the lawsuit, the Dixie National Forest Plan was amended in 2000 to include provisions protecting goshawk habitat, including specifications for retention of stands of dead or dying trees. It alleges that the project would reduce those "snags" by as much as 80 percent. The project also would significantly reduce such stands used by other bird species and that provide "hiding" cover for mule deer and elk.
The groups said the Forest Service attempted a similar project called the Griffin Springs Project in the same geographic area in 2003; for that project it determined impacts were significant enough to warrant an EIS. That timber sale was halted by a 10th Circuit Court of Appeals ruling that found the study was inadequate and that clear-cutting the old-growth forest would have been devastating to wildlife. The Forest Service has now just renamed the project, Garrity said.
"It's no different now, especially on the high-elevation Aquarius Plateau," Garrity said. "There are clear cuts in that area from the '70s that still haven't grown back."