RENO -- Environmentalists accused the Forest Service on Wednesday of illegally planning to cut down the largest, most valuable trees burned in a wildfire near Lake Tahoe to help pay for projects to reduce future fire risks.
The Sierra Nevada Forest Protection Campaign and others filed an administrative appeal this week to try to block the salvage logging planned over thousands of acres. They say the logging plan is driven by the need to pay for projects to reduce wildfire threats in the Sierra Nevada and is not in the best interest of the forest.
Forest Service officials, under increasing attack for their logging policies, maintain many of the biggest, standing dead trees must be removed from some of the burned groves of centuries-old trees to make way for regeneration of another old-growth forest.
"In some areas, once all the dead trees fall, there will be approximately 200 tons of dead material per acre, creating huge fuel buildups," said Karen Jones, Forest Service team leader for the restoration project on the Tahoe National Forest.
"We need to get rid of that so we can grow an old forest again," she said.
Conservationists say most of the standing dead trees, known as snags, should remain to provide habitat for birds and wildlife for the next 50 to 75 years.
"In spite of all their statements to the contrary, it is very clear to us they need the big trees to pay the bills to do the logging," said Craig Thomas, director of the Sierra Nevada Forest Protection Campaign.
"That is unacceptable in a roadless area and illegal under their own rules," he said.
Another group, the John Muir Project, filed a lawsuit in U.S. District Court in Sacramento this fall aimed at halting similar logging in the neighboring Eldorado National Forest. That lawsuit accuses the Forest Service of exaggerating fire damage to bypass certain wildlife protection measures that restrict the size of the trees that can be cut.
The 9th Circuit Court of Appeals in San Francisco has prohibited the Forest Service from logging any live trees there before it hears oral arguments on a request for an injunction Feb. 11.
Officials for the Tahoe National Forest said Wednesday that they have worked with environmental groups for more than a year to try to accommodate their concerns.
"We are leaving more trees than we are removing and we are removing only dead trees. If a tree has just one green needle, it stays," Jones said.
"The purpose is restoration. If our motivation was a salvage sale, we would certainly be removing a lot more trees than we are right now."
Nevertheless, Steve Eubanks, supervisor of the Tahoe National Forest, acknowledged in a statement announcing completion of the environmental impact statement in November that the agency faced "a dilemma of how to fund the fuel reduction needs.
"The value of the trees to be removed can cover the cost of their removal and generate funds to pay for restoration," Eubanks said.
"Without these funds, up to $1,000/acre would be needed in congressionally appropriated dollars for fuel reduction, which is not likely to occur."
The latest administrative appeal was filed Tuesday by the Sierra Nevada Forest Protection Campaign, Tahoe Forest Issues Group, California Wilderness Society, Sierra Foothills Audubon Society, American River Wildlands, Sierra Club Mother Lode Chapter, American Lands Alliance and The Wilderness Society.
It accuses the agency of conducting separate environmental impact statements on the 2001 Star fire that burned more than 12,000 acres total over both forests to minimize the documentation of potential harm to the forest, fish and wildlife.
"I doubt seriously we would think we were going to fool anybody by splitting the fire in half. We've made it clear many times how many acres burned," Forest Service spokesman Matt Mathes said from agency regional headquarters in Vallejo, Calif.
The appeal also accuses the agency of violating its own rules governing management of areas without roads, but Forest Service officials maintain the roadless rule applies only to live trees.
The Star fire burned about half of the 8,000-acre Duncan Canyon roadless area along Middle Fork of the American River near French Meadows Reservoir -- a popular weekend destination for San Francisco Bay area residents.
The Forest Service says only about 5 percent of the trees in the project area fall in the big tree category, while the environmentalists estimate as much as 20 percent of the harvest would include trees larger than 2-feet thick.