Federal foresters have pulled back from logging a high-country swath of spruce in southern Utah, adding another twist to a plan that has generated years of controversy because of the threatened goshawks living there.
The reversal has revived warnings of a "catastrophic fire" in the old-growth forest north of Escalante, fears environmentalists say are bogus.
The eco-groups that appealed the latest Iron Springs proposal after winning a 2006 court battle against a previous version celebrated last week's withdrawal by the Dixie National Forest, though it was unclear whether their victory is final.
Forest spokeswoman Marcia Gilles said the forest intends to rework the environmental analysis rather than killing it. "It's not dead in the water," she said.
Still, the Utah Environmental Congress and the Alliance for the Wild Rockies said they're confident they will continue to thwart the sale, which would affect 5,000 acres of spruce-fir forest at 10,500 feet. That's because the 10th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals already rejected logging old-growth spruce there once because it wouldn't have followed best science practices.
The groups say goshawks need 6,000 acres to roam, and at least a third of that must be dense old-growth spruce that keeps out less-agile predators that compete with them. Where 68 pairs of the birds roamed Dixie when the Forest Service wrote its 1982 forest plan, only 30 remained last decade. As long as that's the case, they say, the Forest Service can't mess with habitat.
"It's a big win even if it is temporary," said Michael Garrity, executive director of the Alliance for the Wild Rockies. "They're clearly not following the law. Unless they show that goshawks get back up to where they were when they wrote the forest plan, they're going to have to keep protecting old growth."
In the environmental assessment that initially approved logging, Dixie officials said it was necessary to trim trees from the plateau to slow the beetles ravaging southern Utah's alpine forests and to encourage new aspen growth. They also warned that conditions were ripe for a "catastrophic fire."
Gilles could not immediately say why the forest's acting supervisor had withdrawn the decision.
Bruce Chappell, a logger and log home builder in Lyman, said environmentalists are hurting business by shutting down sales. He noted that goshawk activity also has temporarily stalled activity on another sale that he already started logging last year.
The Aquarius Plateau needs attention now, he said. "It's dying faster than you can think. Beetles are wiping it out."
Last month's Lost Lake Fire, blackening thousands of acres near Teasdale, shows the need to step up forest treatments, Chappell believes.
"We just had a fire down here that should've opened a few eyes about logging and thinning."
Utah Environmental Congress Program Director Kevin Mueller said leaving the trees alone won't invite an unnatural fire. The spruce forest naturally burns at long intervals once every 300 years so the last century's fire-suppression efforts that get blamed for creating dangerously thick forests haven't had any effect on these areas. They grew thick naturally.
"We strongly believe the Forest Service shouldn't be logging old-growth spruce," he said, "partly because so much of the spruce has been hit by the spruce beetle."