Academics and Research / Magazine Feature

DU law clinic sues federal government over Rio Grande headwaters

DU’s Environmental Law Clinic filed suit June 2, 2009, against the United States government, seeking to stop proposed logging on southern Colorado lands that feed the headwaters of the Rio Grande.

The river is a major source of drinking water for millions of people in Colorado, New Mexico and Texas, and provides water for agriculture in both the United States and Mexico.

The suit, prepared by third-year student Jacob Schlesinger and Environmental Law Clinic Fellow Ashley Wilmes under the direction of Environmental Law Clinic Director Michael Harris, names the U.S. Forest Service and Department of Agriculture. It was filed in federal court in Denver on behalf of environmental groups Colorado Wild and WildEarth Guardians.

The 17-page complaint alleges the proposed 3,500-acre Handkerchief Mesa Timber Project in the Rio Grande National Forest near Alamosa in southwestern Colorado will impact lands stressed by previous clear-cutting and an ongoing spruce budworm infestation. Allowed to proceed, the proposal could lead to continued soil damage, including erosion and compaction, impacting the flow of water to the Rio Grande and thousands of communities downstream.

“The Forest Service’s timber project, which amounts to an illegal ‘chop the trees to save the forest’ plan, will be a major setback for ongoing soil and timber recovery, which in turn will directly impact the quality of the Rio Grande,” Harris said.

The federal government will have 60 days to respond to the case, which asks the court to block the proposed logging permits. Students working with the clinic will pick up work after the summer, once the government’s reply has been filed in court.

The Environmental Law Clinic hasn’t balked at taking on big agencies and organizations. Students at the clinic in recent years have challenged state wildlife officials over prairie dog shoots and challenged Xcel Energy’s environmental record at a Colorado power plant.

Based in Santa Fe, N.M., WildEarth Guardians brings people, science, and the law together in defense of the American West’s rivers, forests, deserts and grasslands. Colorado Wild works from its headquarters in Durango, Colo. to protect, preserve, and restore the native plants and animals of the Southern Rocky Mountains with particular attention given to habitat protection of Colorado’s forested, roadless, public lands and other ecologically important areas.

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