Kyle Dunphey

(Utah News Dispatch) The U.S. Forest Service is abandoning a controversial project in the Uinta Mountains that would have removed trees on vast swaths of public land in northeastern Utah and was the subject of an environmental lawsuit filed in April.

The announcement was made last week in a letter from Kristy Groves, forest supervisor for Ashley National Forest, who said she plans to review the project. Any new decision, Groves wrote, will be consistent with federal guidelines and include public involvement.

Called the Ashley National Forest Aspen Restoration Project, the Forest Service was planning to authorize treatment of trees on over 177,000 acres of public land — “treatment” could mean anything from prescribed burns, selectively logging aspen and conifer trees, installing fencing to protect vegetation from livestock, or girding, a process where crews kill a tree but let it stand.

The Forest Service said the effort would have helped aspen groves “reach a more desirable condition for overall health,” according to documents from the project.

But environmental groups disagreed, including the Center for Biological Diversity, which said the project was more of a logging operation than a “restoration project.” The group, along with the Yellowstone to Uintas Connection, Alliance for the Wild Rockies, and the Native Ecosystems Council, sued the Forest Service in U.S. District Court for Utah’s Central Division.

Attorneys for the groups alleged the Forest Service was in violation of the Roadless Rule and the National Environmental Policy Act, or NEPA, which requires government agencies to assess environmental impacts before starting a project.

“This announcement is a big win for the beautiful, wild aspen stands on the Ashley National Forest and for the plants and animals that depend on them,” said Ted Zukoski, a senior attorney at the Center for Biological Diversity. “While it’s a great relief the Aspen Project has been shelved for now, it never should’ve been approved in the first place. Our biologically rich natural places need to be protected, not logged.”

The Ashley National Forest includes about 1.4 million acres of public land along the Utah-Wyoming border and houses King’s Peak, the highest mountain in Utah.