Suit could hold up timber harvest

Suit could hold up timber harvest

27 August 2009

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USA — A Sacramento judge on Sept. 10 is scheduled to hear a renewed motion of a five-year-old lawsuit filed by the environment group Sierra Forest Legacy that could halt logging projects in the Stanislaus National Forest.

The lawsuit involves projects that use the 2004 Sierra Nevada Framework as a guide to developing logging plans.

If the 2004 framework were deemed in violation of the National Environmental Policy Act, dozens of planned forest thinning and fuel reduction projects in the Sierra Nevada’s national forests could be eliminated, according to the California Forestry Association, a logging lobbying group.

Currently, the Stanislaus National Forest uses the 2004 framework for logging plans, and the forest would therefore be influenced by the court’s decision, said Jerry Snyder, Stanislaus Forest spokesman.

The case will be heard in the U.S. District Court in Sacramento.

The 2004 framework replaced the 2001 Sierra Nevada Framework as the operative land and resource management guide for the 11 national forests in the Sierra Nevada.

The debated difference between the two documents is the 2004 framework’s allowance of trees with diameters of up to 30 inches to be cut, compared to the 2001 framework which allowed trees of up to 20 inches to be harvested, said Gregory Loarie, one of the attorneys handling the plaintiff’s case from the environmental law group Earthjustice.

The lawsuit, essentially, argues that the removal of trees over 20 inches from the forest does nothing to protect homes from fire — and arguably makes the threat of wildland fire worse — and harms forest ecosystems for sensitive animals like the California spotted owl, the American marten and the Pacific fisher, Loarie said.

 In a related 2008 case, Sierra Forest Legacy and other environment groups won a preliminary injunction against three logging projects in the Plumas National Forest on similar grounds until the broader case against the 2004 framework is settled.

Earlier this month, after the Forest Service applied for and won a petition of rehearing, the 2008 decision was upheld in the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit.

In the more recent argument, the Forest Service admitted that the removal of large-diameter trees does not improve wildland fire conditions, but it does allow the Forest Service to earn a profit on timber harvest sales.

The profits then can be used to support further thinning projects that would reduce fuel loads that could lead to catastrophic wildfires in Sierra Nevada forests, they argued.

Logging groups argue that Sierra Forest Legacy’s renewed lawsuit would only reduce the amount of logging done on already overgrown and fire-prone forests.

“Many Sierra Nevada forestlands now stand overgrown with up to 10 times more trees per acre than pre-Gold Rush era forests,” said David Bischel, California Forestry Association president. “With unprecedented fuel loads posing an immediate threat to more than 3 million California homes, we need more efforts to thin forests, not more litigation to block fuel reduction efforts.”

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