San Francisco, USA — A federal appeals court on Wednesday blocked a Bush administration rule that allowed logging and burning projects in national forests without first analyzing their effects on the environment.
The 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals said the U.S. Forest Service violated the National Environmental Policy Act when it issued the 2003 rule, which was billed as a way to reduce wildfires as part of the administration’s “Healthy Forests Initiative.”
The “hazardous-fuels reduction” rule exempted logging projects up to 1,000 acres and prescribed forest burns up to 4,500 acres from environmental review.
In its opinion, the three-judge panel said the agency’s failure to properly analyze the rule has caused “irreparable injury” by allowing more than 1.2 million acres of national forest land to be logged and burned each year without studying the ecological impacts.
The justices ruled that the Forest Service no longer can exempt such projects from environmental analysis until the rule itself can be properly analyzed.
The San Francisco-based appeals court sided with the Sierra Club and Sierra Nevada Forest Protection Campaign, which sued the Forest Service and Department of Agriculture in 2004. Wednesday’s decision overturns a lower court ruling that favored the administration.
“This ruling will help ensure that vast swaths of our national forests are not logged without environmental reviews under the guise of forest management or fuel suppression,” said Eric Huber, an attorney for the San Francisco-based Sierra Club.
To what extent the court’s decision will affect Forest Service management in the Lake Tahoe Basin is not yet known, said Rex Norman, spokesman for the Lake Tahoe Basin Management Unit of the Forest Service.
The ruling will not apply to the South Shore Fuel Reduction and Healthy Forest Restoration Project, because the project’s size exceeds what is covered by Wednesday’s ruling, Norman said.
More than 12,000 acres of forest at the South Shore are expected to be treated for wildfire risk under the project, which could be approved as early as this spring.
The U.S. Department of Justice, which represented the federal agencies, is reviewing the court’s opinion and will decide whether to appeal, said David Shelledy, civil division chief of the U.S. Attorney’s office in Sacramento.
Forest Service spokesman Joe Walsh said the agency believes the rule is a “useful tool” but will comply with the court’s injunction.
The policy change was made after the 2000 fire season, one of the worst in 50 years, when 123,000 fires scorched more than 8.4 million acres. Officials said the exemption would make it easier and faster to clear plants, shrubs and trees that could ignite or fuel wildfires.
But conservationists opposed the rule, saying it allowed national forest land to be logged and burned with minimal oversight and analysis.
In their lawsuit, the Sierra Club and Sierra Nevada Forest Protection Campaign challenged the Forest Service’s decision to use the rule to approve logging and burning projects in the Eldorado National Forest in Northern California.