Wildlife conservation groups on Thursday praised a decision by Dixie National Forest withdrawing a plan to harvest 8,000 acres of old-growth forest near Escalante.
"Conservationists are calling this a valentine for wildlife," said Kevin Mueller, program director for Utah Environmental Congress. "The withdrawal really is a reprieve for wildlife."
But others, including Rep. Mike Noel, R-Kanab, said opposing the timber sale is "not proper thinking."
"When trees grow so close together you have this huge buildup of fuels so you have ground fires and crown fires. They think that's good but that's not proper thinking and not proper management," he said.
The Utah Environmental Congress was told of the withdrawal in a letter received Wednesday from Kris Rutledge, regional appeals coordinator for the U.S. Forest Service. The three-paragraph letter says only that because Dixie National Forest Supervisor Angelita S. Bulletts had withdrawn approval of the plan earlier this month, the UEC's appeal "is dismissed without further review."
Why the plan was withdrawn and whether this is the final death knell for the long-disputed project were not immediately clear. Bulletts was on leave and could not be reached for comment Thursday.
Mueller said the harvest has appeared dead at least three times before, as far back as 1999.
"This is a horrible game of whack a mole that's been going for about a dozen years, and I just really hope the Forest Service gives up the ghost on this project and doesn't resurrect it again," he said.
The timber harvest area of 8,306 acres is about 15 miles northwest of Escalante at elevations ranging from 9,000 to 10,750 feet. Mueller said the trees that were to be cut down are an estimated 150 to 400 years old.
Conservation groups have fought the harvest, saying the trees provide needed nesting and forage habitat for the threatened Mexican spotted owl and sensitive-species goshawk.
Like Noel, proponents of the timber harvest, formally called the "Iron Springs Vegetation Improvement and Salvage Project," have warned of wildfire threat without it.
But Mueller noted that the project area is populated mostly by Engelmann Spruce, a high-elevation tree type that naturally burns at long intervals, 100 to 400 years. He said that because of the area's high elevation, fire suppression has not taken place there so it is not in an "unnatural" state.
Also, if a wildfire does occur, "it is part of the natural cycle of things," he said. "The forests actually become more valuable to sensitive and rare species after a fire."
Mike Garrity, executive director of the Alliance for the Wild Rockies, said the project would have been "illegal logging" because it did not adequately consider the impact on protected species. He said also the project's withdrawal will save taxpayers millions because the Forest Service typically loses money on timber sales.
"We hope the Forest Service finally will get the message and stop wasting taxpayers' money proposing illegal logging of old-growth forest in Utah," Garrity said.
Noel said opposition by groups outside of Utah like the Montana-based Alliance for the Wild Rockies, is a "perfect example" of why state officials want to take control of public lands. "This is another reason why our Utah lands and forestry people and local people can do a better job of managing lands because we're not held hostage to groups in ... other areas," he said.