Court boosts effort to block Tahoe-area logging
Environmentalists suing to block federal salvage logging in the Sierra claimed at least a temporary victory with the ruling from the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.
But a lawyer for Sierra Pacific Industries, the largest private landowner in California who won the bid to log the land, said it will have little effect.
The Earth Island Institute and its John Muir Project, based in Cedarville, Calif., accuse the Forest Service of targeting large, living trees for cutting in the Eldorado National Forest under the guise of a salvage project to remove trees killed by an August 2001 wildfire.
Their lawsuit filed in September says the agency is exaggerating fire damage and using unscientific guidelines to declare trees dead even if they have more than one-third of their green needles.
U.S. District Court Judge Morrison England Jr. in Sacramento had rejected a bid to halt the logging until a full hearing was held.
But the 9th Circuit, based in San Francisco, agreed in an emergency ruling late last week that no trees with any green needles in the area should be cut before a hearing in February.
The appellate court prohibited cutting any trees in the area "which have any percentage of green foliage and/or crown remaining."
Although temporary, environmentalists said the ruling is a significant step in the effort to stop the Forest Service from logging in burned areas. Those areas continue to provide habitat for wildlife and probably will grow into old-growth forests on their own, according to the environmentalists.
"It means no green trees will be coming down at least until next year," said Rachel Fazio, a lawyer for the Earth Island Institute.
The logging, called the Star fire project, is planned across 1,700 acres of the national forest in Placer County, about 20 miles west of Lake Tahoe and south of Interstate 80 along the Upper Middle Fork of the American River.
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 for 23 days in August 2001.
The lawsuit accuses the government of violating the National Environmental Policy Act by not analyzing the project's effects. It says many of the trees marked for logging 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.
"They have overestimated the intensity and severity of the fire and the acreage that was killed by the fire," Fazio said.
"The judge agreed we presented enough to show the district court ruling might get overturned and that the harm would be irreparable."
Sierra Pacific lawyer Dave Martinek said the company would abide by the ruling, but doubts it will have much effect on the project.
"If we cannot take any trees with green on them, we'll end up leaving behind about 10 percent or 15 percent of the trees we would have harvested," Martinek said from Redding, Calif.
"The Forest Service has the discretion to manage the forest. Our focus has really just been trying to keep the timber mills in that area running," he said. "If there is one branch on a tree that has any green, it is staying."
Matt Mathes, a spokesman for the Forest Service's regional office in Vallejo, said the agency established a policy this summer forbidding logging of any trees with green needles within "old forest emphasis areas" or designated habitat for the California spotted owl.
But "apparently most of the trees in this particular area were completely blackened by fire. Something like 80 percent of the trees to be harvested are completely black," he said.
"There is a giant disconnect between their documents and what is truly the case on the ground. We've gone out and taken hundreds of pictures to submit to the court," Fazio said.
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