Thompson Divide

The Thompson Divide includes 221,000 acres of public land within the White River National Forest in Pitkin, Garfield and Mesa counties.

The federal appeals court based in Colorado has rejected the claim that the federal government improperly approved a logging project on 1,631 acres of land within the White River National Forest.

The decision upheld a lower court ruling which found the U.S. Forest Service had not violated environmental law or failed to consider the effects of the project on climate change or forest fungi. In large part, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 10th Circuit faulted the 21 plaintiffs challenging the project for failing to present their evidence properly.

Known as the Upper Fryingpan Vegetation Management Project, the Forest Service began holding meetings in 2015 on the plan to harvest timber and manage the long-term health of the forest. Out of the 2.3 million acres of the national forest, the Forest Service settled on a proposal to harvest most larger lodgepole pine trees on 1,061 acres, plus remove trees in other units on hundreds of additional acres. To accommodate the logging operation, there would be nine miles of additional roads built. 

"The project does not authorize deforestation, which is the conversion of land from a forest to a non-forest use, but instead authorizes treatment that will accomplish an improved forested condition in the harvest units over time," wrote attorneys for the Forest Service. The goals included achieving greater tree diversity and size in the project area, increasing resistance to wildfires and enhancing animal habitat. 

In 2019, 21 residents of the Upper Fryingpan Valley who used the area for recreation sued the Forest Service. They alleged the government failed to consider the effects of the project on climate change or fungi, and should have prepared an environmental impact statement accounting for the project's significant consequences.

"[T]he senseless burning of stumps and slash at the end of every project kills the fungal part of the forest that survives on and sequesters carbon from, dead wood and results in a wholly unnecessary release of additional carbon," wrote John G. Swomley, an attorney who is also one of the plaintiffs. "Forests are some of the most significant sources of carbon dioxide uptake in the world. At a time when we need all the carbon sequestration we can get, now is not the time to be clearcutting trees."

In September of last year, a lower court dismissed the lawsuit after finding the Forest Service had not acted arbitrarily in its conclusion that there would be no significant environmental impact from the project. Timothy M. Tymkovich, the chief judge of the 10th Circuit who was assigned to review the case at the district court level, decided the residents had failed to show how the "relatively small" timber project would contribute to significant greenhouse gas emissions.

The residents appealed to the 10th Circuit, where a three-judge panel on Friday upheld the decision. Because the plaintiffs neglected to include studies and otherwise submitted inadequate materials for review, "we cannot assess the rationale behind the Forest Service’s scientific findings or determine whether the agency’s decision runs counter to the evidence that was before it," wrote Judge Carolyn B. McHugh.

Last summer, the Grizzly Creek Fire burned an area in and around the forest more than 20 times larger than the 1,631 acres of the approved project. At the time, national forest supervisor Scott Fitzwilliams said the Forest Service needed to undertake more "fuel reduction" projects, according to the Aspen Times.

The case is Swomley et al. v. Schroyer et al.

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