A timber sale in the Black Canyon recreation area east of Payson has environmentalists -- including members of the Tucson-based Center for Biological Diversity -- worried. They say the harvest of up to 30 million board-feet of timber near Baca Meadow will harm old-growth pine forests that are vital to the threatened northern goshawk.
U.S. Forest Service officials say, however, that the timber harvest and other changes will "provide users with a reliable recreation and camping experience while protecting any sensitive soils and vegetation."
In an attempt to thwart the changes, which are being overseen by Apache-Sitgreaves National Forest officials, a coalition of conservation organizations has filed an administrative appeal with the Forest Service hoping to halt the 8,000-acre Baca timber sale.
Forest Service officials such as Apache-Sitgreaves Supervisor Robert Dyson contends that the harvest won't affect the goshawk or the endangered Mexican spotted owl.
Heber/Chevlon District Ranger Kate Klein agrees. She says that inventories conducted by her office reveal that there are more spotted owls in the Black Canyon area than anywhere else on the district.
"The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service agrees with us that these planned vegetation treatments will benefit them and other species," she says.
According to Dyson, the Forest Service developed its vision for the area on the Mogollon Rim west of Heber in 1996 when the public was invited to help plan the future.
The plan, he says, evolved to include identifying and marking campsites, as well as converting old roads into hiking and equestrian tails.
Miles of old roads will be closed or obliterated so that only two miles of open road per square mile of forest will remain.
That standard, he says, will discourage wildlife harassment and soil erosion.
"(It's also) easier to see the forest for the trees," he says, "(because) many thickets of little trees are gone and (there are about) 13 large trees per acre that dominate the landscape."
But it's the thinning of those ponderosa pine trees that environmentalists claim will harm the ecosystem.
But forester Don Holmstrom says the project will do just the opposite.
Tree thinning projects are important to the health of the forest, he says, because the remaining trees will grow bigger faster.
The changes, he says, are "an alternative that will regenerate aspen stands, thin small trees on 7,600 acres and return prescribed fire to an ecosystem that sorely needs fire to reduce all of the downed woody debris lying on the floor of the forests."
Other Forest Service plans for the area include the establishment of group camps at Baca Meadow along Forest Road 300 between Nelson Lake and Eubank Lake.
The conservation coalition's administrative appeal will undoubtedly slow the Black Canyon Lake projects, but Forest Service officials say they're convinced the changes are in the best interest of the area.
"We're heading in the right direction to restore many natural qualities to the forest and that's an exciting venture," Klein says. "The Rim forest will be healthier and our visitors will be pleased with the diversity of experiences available."