An environmental group has filed a lawsuit against the U.S. Forest Service, claiming the federal agency used an out-of-control controlled burn and resulting beetle outbreak as an excuse to approve a "landscape-scale" logging operation.

In a suit filed in U.S. District Court, the Utah Environmental Congress says it wants to stop what it considers a large, destructive and illegal timber sale that would result in the logging of 10 million board-feet of timber in an area of the Dixie National Forest at the top of Mount Dutton, which is 20 miles north of Bryce Canyon National Park.

The group claims the Forest Service is justifying the timber sale due to an outbreak of bark beetles. However, the suit states that in 2002 the Forest Service prescribed a burn during severe drought conditions. The Sanford Fire burned an estimated 70,000 acres, killing wildlife, even boiling a population of genetically pure Bonneville cutthroat trout. The fire, UEC claims, led to an outbreak of bark beetles, which the Forest Service is now using to justify the timber sale.

"Take all the logging units and put them next to each other and you get a square so large that if one corner were the old ZCMI mall downtown, the opposite corner would be near the 9th and 9th neighborhood," said UEC executive director Kevin Mueller.

Erin O'Connor, spokeswoman for the Intermountain Region of the Forest Service, said she had not seen the lawsuit and declined to comment.

UEC said the area has since rebounded from the 2002 fire, which is also considered a critical elk calving area. The trout creeks have also started to heal. Approval of logging in the area would undo the healing and bring "further catastrophic damages" to the area, the group claims.

"Irresponsible Forest Service management caused the domino-effect that has horribly altered the forest landscape, wildlife habitat and imperiled fish populations up on Dutton," Mueller said. "The proposed logging is sure to delay the trout's recovery for decades due to watershed damage from increased erosion, sediment and decreased water quality."

Contributing: Stephen Speckman

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