Forest Service sued in Sierra over post-fire logging plan
RENO — Conservationists filed a lawsuit Friday to block federal logging west of Lake Tahoe that they say will increase wildfire risks in the Sierra rather than reduce the threat as the Forest Service and industry backers maintain.
The salvage logging operation planned across 1,700 acres of the Eldorado National Forest would recover standing dead timber, restore burned soils and reduce wood fuels in the aftermath of a 17,000-acre fire that burned for 23 days in August 2001, the Forest Service says.
But opponents said in the complaint filed in U.S. District Court in Sacramento that the agency is breaking the law. They say the plan targets the biggest, most valuable surviving trees in areas where old-growth stands are supposed to be protected, and it leaves behind piles of wood waste called slash that they say will boost fire threats.
They asked the court for an emergency restraining order to block the logging, which is scheduled to begin as early as next week.
“They have this backward,” said Rachel Fazio, a lawyer for the John Muir Project which filed the lawsuit on behalf of the Earth Island Institute and Center for Biological Diversity.
“They are taking the least flammable material — the largest trees that provide the shade. They are leaving all the fuels, the small trees and slash. They are going to increase fire risk pretty significantly,” she said.
Frank Mosbacher, a Forest Service spokesman for the Eldorado National Forest in Placerville, Calif., said Friday that the agency had not seen the lawsuit and had no direct comment on it.
But he defended the “Star Fire Restoration Project” as part of a comprehensive effort to heal the forest over the next 250 years. He said timber harvesting was not a priority and denied the logging would increase fire risks.
“A significant part of the whole analysis was to make sure whatever we do out there will reduce the fire hazard in the short term,” he said. “Our goal is to grow an old forest in that area.”
The Star project logging is planned in Placer County about 20 miles west of Lake Tahoe and south of Interstate 80 near the Upper Middle Fork of the American River and French Meadows Reservoir.
The same conservation groups have filed administrative challenges against at least three other logging operations in the Sierra but this is the first time they have sought to block one with a court order.
The lawsuit accuses the agency of violating the National Environmental Policy Act by failing to adequately analyze the effects of the project.
The lawsuit says the Forest Service grossly overestimated the area that experienced a “high-intensity burn.” It says many of the trees marked for logging are within suitable habitat for the California spotted owl and should be protected under guidelines prohibiting logging of any trees larger than 20 inches diameter.
Chad Hanson, director of the John Muir Project in Cedar Ridge, Calif., said he walked the area with Forest Service officials Thursday and saw dozens of live trees marked for harvest.
“Many if not most of the trees they are proposing to log are green and healthy. These are mature and old-growth trees. They are partially burned, but they are very much alive,” he said.
Hanson said the agency intends to pile and burn only 10 percent to 20 percent of the waste material.
“The rest of it will just sit there,” he said.
Mosbacher said it is critical to provide some cover for the bare, burned soils before fall rains begin.
“That was a very intense fire and the soil in many cases was cooked. There has to be something to break up the rain drops or the sediment will just wash into the streams,” he said.
“This is very small material that will be going down, as opposed to what is traditionally called slash — branches and tops of trees,” he said.
The project estimates logging 34 million board feet of timber. A board foot is one foot square by one inch thick. It takes about 10,000 board feet to build a typical single-family home.
“Board feet wasn’t the goal in this one,” Mosbacher said.
“In any case, we are taking a very conservative approach on the trees we remove. If there are any green trees, they will stay,” he said.
But Hanson said about 900 acres of the logging is planned using heavy tractor equipment.
“Nothing causes more severe soil damage than tractor logging,” Hanson said.
“It’s not about getting ground cover. It’s about getting big old-growth trees down to the mill before anybody finds out about it.”
Phil Aune, vice president of the industry’s California Forestry Association, said the Forest Service already rejected the critics’ claims in an administrative appeal.
“It doesn’t surprise me that now they are taking the next step to file a lawsuit,” Aune said.
“There is no way the Forest Service is going to leave behind slash that would significantly put at risk their reforestation investment. It just doesn’t make sense,” he said.