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
By Bettina Boxall, Times Staff Writer
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
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."