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Judge Bans Logging in Tahoe Site

Ruling says the U.S. Forest Service ignored studies and policies in approving a project that could 'increase the likelihood of severe fire.'

By Bettina Boxall, Times Staff Writer
LA Times
August 24, 2004

A federal judge has blocked a national forest logging project in a roadless tract of the Sierra Nevada after concluding it could worsen the threat of destructive wildfires.

In a highly critical opinion, a Sacramento-based U.S. District Court judge found the U.S. Forest Service ignored several scientific studies as well as backcountry protections when it approved the timber cutting in the Tahoe National Forest.

The project, wrote Judge Morrison C. England Jr. in a ruling filed Friday, "may increase the likelihood of severe fire" which was "clearly not in the public interest."

Although the decision involves a relatively small logging project, it touches on a much larger battle over Bush administration policies for the 192 million acres of national forest.

The administration has revised Forest Service rules and has won legislation to increase logging on federal lands, which it says is necessary to thin overgrown forests vulnerable to destructive wildfires. But environmentalists contend the policy changes are designed more to help the timber industry than reduce the fire threat.

The Tahoe ruling, issued by a Bush appointee, came down on the side of the environmentalists, finding fault with the Forest Service on a number of counts.

Aaron Isherwood, an attorney for the Sierra Club, said the "Bush administration is wasting its time on expensive logging operations on remote areas of the backcountry that actually increase the risk of fire. Today the truth caught up with them."

The Sierra Club, with the John Muir Project, sued to stop the plan.

Forest Service representatives said they were disappointed with the decision. "We did truly intend to do what we could to get the forest back quicker," said Rich Johnson, a Tahoe National Forest district ranger. "We're dealing with an area that is very controversial. We did what we thought was a good job. In hindsight, I guess we could have done a better job, been a little more correct or told the story a little more clearly."

England's ruling deals with proposed logging in the Duncan Canyon roadless area near Lake Tahoe. It was part of a bigger operation, the Red Star Restoration Project, that involved logging about 5,500 acres of dead trees burned in a 2001 wildfire in the Tahoe and Eldorado national forests. If the blackened trees were not commercially harvested, the Forest Service argued, they would eventually all fall down and cover the forest floor with deadwood that would fuel future blazes.

Logging outside the roadless portions has been completed. But as recently as June, the Forest Service indicated it still wanted to cut about 450 acres in Duncan Canyon. England's ruling, a preliminary injunction that follows a temporary order he issued last year, stops the agency from proceeding.

When it approved the Red Star project, the Forest Service cited several scientific studies that concluded forest thinning reduces fire risk.

But as England noted in his ruling, it was not the kind of thinning the Forest Service had in mind. Indeed, the studies specifically admonished against the approach adopted in the Red Star project: harvesting large trees and leaving treetops and limbs, called slash, piled on the forest floor. Though the Forest Service said it would return within a few years to clean out small growth and slash on about half the acreage, it said it lacked the money to take care of the rest, meaning large amounts of highly flammable small wood would be left.

"Even though agency decisions are entitled to deference, [the law] does not allow defendants to rely on [their] own opinions and conclusions without providing hard data and analysis for both the public and the court to review," England wrote.

He also found that the project probably violated national protections for roadless forest. Those regulations — which the Bush administration is proposing to repeal — permit cutting of only small trees for certain reasons, such as improving wildlife habitat or reducing the risk of severe wild land blazes. The Duncan Canyon logging, England ruled, failed on both counts, as it "may both elevate the likelihood of extreme fire and damage critical habitat."