Medicine Bow National Forest is a popular area for recreation in Southeastern Wyoming, covering about one million acres of mountains, lakes, and more.
The National Forest Service is launching a plan for restoration in Medicine Bow. The Landscape Vegetation Analysis, or LaVA project, gives the Forest Service the ability to treat over two hundred thousand acres of the forest with prescribed burns and logging and build up to 600 miles of temporary roads. Although the Forest Service said the goal of the project is to create a healthier forest, environmental groups are critical of the plan.
Forest Supervisor Russ Bacon said the pine beetle infestation has killed a lot of trees in the forest.
"The primary goal is really to address this sea of dead lodgepole, if you will, that is present on the landscape," said Bacon. "Right now we have a situation where we just don't have a very resilient forest."
However, Connie Wilbert, the director of Sierra Club Wyoming Chapter, said LaVA is a logging project.
"It's deeply troubling that the Forest Service wants to accomplish this level of logging across the forest and build this many additional roads which will just further fragment wildlife habitat and make it almost impossible to find a place to go up there for people who like quiet recreation," said Wilbert.
One question is where the forest treatment will specifically take place. Forest officials have not made that public, and Ted Zukoski at the Center for Biological Diversity said that's a problem.
"What the Forest Service has done here is to say, 'We're not gonna tell you where any of those roads are going to be built, we're not going to tell you when and how we're going to be implementing these clear cuts and other treatments. We'll figure that all out later, trust us,'" said Zukoski.
Zukoski said the lack of information is a violation of the National Environmental Policy Act, or NEPA.
"NEPA performs two important jobs," said Zukoski. "First, it requires agencies to look before they leap, so to understand the environmental consequences of their actions before they act. And it requires the public to be informed and have an opportunity to be heard."
Zukoski said the Forest Service has designed such a large plan that it is impossible to study the results of LaVA. Forest Supervisor Bacon said the plan is broad because the problem is big.
"We can't continue to meet this challenge of large, million acre landscapes with very small treatments," said Bacon. "LaVA really is designed to, over the course of this 15 years, to match the solution at scale with the challenge."
Bacon also said the scope of LaVA will allow the Forest Service to treat the forest in the best way possible.
"All too often, when it comes to the National Environmental Policy Act, we as an agency have found ourselves in a situation where it takes us so long to plan a project that by the time we get through the planning, the conditions on the ground have changed," said Bacon.
Bacon said that one of the primary goals of LaVA is to prevent wildfires.
"The fires that are burning in Colorado right now I think are really good reminders for us why LaVA is important," he said.
Wilbert, of the Sierra Club, said that LaVA isn't the answer to the wildfire problem.
"Drought and temperature are the two factors that are the most influential in forest fire frequency and intensity, not insect infestations," said Wilbert.
The best way to prevent wildfire may be up for debate between the two sides, but the effects of the project on recreationalists are not. Wilbert and Bacon agreed that the project will be noticeable.
"If we're talking about commercial logging on as much as a quarter or a third of the forest over a relatively short period of time, 15 years, of course you're going to see it," said Wilbert.
Bacon said the increased activity will come hand in hand with more access.
Barring litigation, the LaVA project will move forward as it was approved by the Forest Service this month. Bacon said the Forest Service will request input from stakeholders and the public throughout the duration of the project.
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