(CN) - A federal judge has halted a logging project on southwestern Colorado's Handkerchief Mesa, finding that the U.S. Forest Service did not prepare a valid environmental study.
The harvest would have brought about 8.3 million board feet of commercial timber and firewood out of the Rio Grande National Forest over five years.
Though the Forest Service argued that the logging was needed to ward off insects and tree-killing diseases, Rocky Mountain Wild and WildEarth Guardians claimed that the project, and the road building it would require, would only further harm a forest and watershed already damaged by several generations of intensive logging.
This possibility allegedly went unchecked before the agency gave its approval, according to the groups.
U.S. District William Martínez in Colorado agreed in a Feb. 9 ruling.
"On remand, if respondents wish to continue to seek approval of all or a portion of the Handkerchief Mesa Timber Project, they shall first complete an environmental analysis ... that complies with" federal law, he wrote.
WildEarth Guardians applauded the decision, saying it "will give the forests and wildlife in Colorado a serious reprieve from indefensible logging."
"This is the headwaters of the Rio Grande and deserves the most cautious management," WildEarth Public Lands Director Bryan Bird said in a statement.
The forest and soils on Handkerchief Mesa are still recovering from "vast clearcuts and over-logging in the latter half of the 20th century," according to the groups.
"The soils in the Handkerchief Mesa area are severely prone to erosion and landslide, and as a result, the area's streams continue to be impacted by excess sediment resulting from past logging and road construction," they said. "In the conservation group's opinion, the Handkerchief Mesa timber sale further threatens the soil health, hydrology and wildlife habitat an already fragile area."
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