Forest Service, environmentalists square off over Tahoe lands

SAN FRANCISCO -- The U.S. Forest Service and environmentalists squared off before a federal appeals court Tuesday, arguing over the plight of fire-ravaged lands west of Lake Tahoe.

At issue is an emergency order by the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in November preventing the government-approved cutting of any trees with green foliage in an area damaged by fire in 2001.

The Forest Service, and a logging concern awarded the salvage project covering 1,700 acres, urged a three-judge panel of the 9th Circuit to allow logging on the disputed timber to resume this spring, when weather permits.

They said hundreds of trees barred from being felled are dead and should be removed. A failure to do so could add to disease and potentially fuel new fires, they said.

But environmentalists said the targeted trees are alive and should not be included in the salvage operation in Placer County, about 20 miles west of Lake Tahoe and south of Interstate 80 along the Upper Middle Fork of the American River.

Sierra Pacific Industries has removed about 12 million board feet of wood from the area ravaged by the Star fire. An attorney for Sierra Pacific, David Dun, estimates up to 5 million board feet are held up by the court's order. It takes about 10,000 board feet to build a typical single-family home.

The dispute centers on what is a dead tree. The Earth Island Institute and its John Muir Project accuse the Forest Service of targeting large, living trees for cutting in the El Dorado National Forest under the guise of a salvage project to remove trees killed by wildfire.

The Forest Service says much of the acreage is dead and should be cut.

"There has been approximately 80 percent destruction," argued Forest Service attorney Edward Brennan. He said a "tree without a healthy green canopy isn't going to survive."

Environmentalists countered that only a fraction of the government's estimates are accurate. They say burned areas continue to provide habitat for wildlife, will grow into old-growth forests on their own, and that forest officials did not adequately study the area.

"They chose to ignore extensive ground surveys," argued Rachel Fazio, the John Muir Project's legal coordinator.

U.S. District Judge Morrison England Jr. in Sacramento rejected a bid to halt the logging. But the San Francisco-based appeals court in November issued a temporary injunction that no trees in the Star fire project with any green needles in the area should be cut before the appeals court resolves the dispute.

Forest Service officials say the project would salvage standing dead timber, restore burned soils and reduce wood fuels in the aftermath of a 17,000-acre fire that burned 23 days in August 2001.

The lawsuit accuses the government of violating the National Environmental Policy Act by not adequately analyzing the project. It says many of the trees marked for logging are alive and help provide suitable habitat for the California spotted owl and should be protected under new Sierra guidelines prohibiting logging of any trees larger than 20 inches diameter.

The three appellate judges, who did not indicate when they would rule, asked few questions. But Judge John T. Noonan, a President Reagan appointee, said he was concerned that the Forest Service derives revenues from logging projects it allows.

"If the decision maker is taking money, isn't the decision maker corrupt?" he asked.

Brennan, the government's attorney, replied: "This is a system Congress gave us."

The judge said: "That's not an answer."

The case is Earth Island Institute v. U.S. Forest Service, 02-16999.


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