A 1,000-acre timber sale in Dixie National Forest is on hold, pending review of a wildlife assessment written by a biologist who did not visit the site.
The decision is likely to stoke the already hot dispute between environmentalists and loggers in southern Utah over the future of timber harvesting in the region.On Aug. 13, Hugh Thompson, supervisor of the national forest, approved an offering of 900,000 board-feet of ponderosa pine for harvest. But on Oct. 5 - after an appeal by the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance - Thompson withdrew his approval and said he was reconsidering some important issues about the sale.
The alliance had protested the decision to allow timber harvesting in the Casto Canyon area, about 10 or 15 miles northwest of Bryce Canyon National Park, because of possible effects on wildlife and plants.
The Forest Service agreed to reconsider because the wildlife biologist who assessed likely effects on deer, elk and turkeys did not visit the sale site.
The sale proposal was approved in principle in the Dixie Forest Plan, issued in 1986. Many of the Forest Service staff members who worked on that plan have transferred to other areas in later years.
"The initial staff proposed a project, and one of the people, the wildlife biologist, had not visited the ground," where the sale was to be held, said Rick Rine, the forest's environmental coordinator and assistant forest planner.
After the wilderness alliance complained, Thompson withdrew his approval because "we felt that we needed to confirm the wildlife biologist's findings from the original review team.
"We've had two biologists on our staff now visit the sale area to assess the potential effects on the wildlife in that area."
They spent several areas combing the proposed sale area and are developing a report. "Depending on what they discovered, we'll review their findings and then the forest supervisor will decide what to do from there."
Thompson may decide to confirm the original findings, or he might issue a new report to be examined in a public review process.
In May, before the now-withdrawn decision was issued this fall, a wildlife biologist visited the sale site looking for threatened, endangered and sensitive species. He found a nest that he believes was built by golden eagles, which are not endangered, although their cousins, the bald eagles, are.
He did not discover any falcons. Also, a spotted owl inventory team went to the area four times in a two-week period, using recordings in an attempt to draw out the elusive owl. They too were unsuccessful.
That means the only section of the report that may be in dispute is that covering big game and indicator species.
Rine emphasized that the biologist who wrote the original report stated in the document that he did not visit the area. He made an estimate of what the situation might be, "based upon his knowledge" of the general area.
The review might be completed within about a month.
Ken Rait, issues coordinator for the alliance, said Casto Canyon is just north of the scenic Red Canyon. Many visitors pass Red Canyon en route to Bryce Canyon National Park, he said.
"The trees in Casto Canyon provide important winter habitat for deer and elk, and botanists recognize the area for its high density of rare and sensitive plant species," he said.
He charged that the timber sale would probably be below cost, if it takes place. That would cost taxpayers' money and result in the loss of important wildlife habitat sites, he said.
In case the Forest Service is still interested in carrying out the proposed sale, he added, a full-blown environmental impact statement should be prepared.
Rine said that when the environmentalists raised their objections, the Forest Service had to check the original findings and attempt to reassure the public that the original findings were valid.