USA — Responding for the first time to a lawsuit by conservationists, the U.S. Forest Service says the threat of another major wildfire like the one that destroyed 250 homes at Lake Tahoe four years ago outweighs any concerns that its plans to log much of what’s left of the burned forest would harm a rare woodpecker or other wildlife.
But environmentalists suing to block the post-fire salvage logging on Tahoe’s south shore say the agency is exaggerating the fire danger and downplaying the anticipated impacts of logging about half of the 3,000 acres that burned in the Angora fire in June 2007.
Lawyers for both sides are scheduled to argue their case in U.S. District Court in Sacramento on Monday as the opponents try to persuade Judge Garland E. Burrell Jr. to find the logging plan illegal and order the agency to conduct another review of the potential impacts of the project that will cost taxpayers an estimated $3 million.
The Forest Service said in recent court filings that the lawsuit takes issue with “inconsequential, technical deficiencies” in its environmental assessment and formal determination last July that the logging will cause no significant harm to the black-backed woodpecker or anything else.
The critics’ “sole interest in unlogged post-fire habitat is not paramount to the other public interests in forest restoration and the promotion of the diversity of wildlife,” Justice Department lawyers representing the federal agency wrote in a legal brief filed June 13.
“If the project were enjoined, the risk of catastrophic fire would increase in coming years, threatening people and their property as well as sensitive wildlife habitat,” they said.
“Even if implementing the project would harm plaintiffs, the degree of such harm is minimal and the injuries to the public interest tip the balance of equities sharply against the issuance of an injunction,” wrote Stacey Bosshardt, a trial lawyer in the department’s Environment and Natural Resources Division in Washington D.C.
Conservationists counter that the Forest Service has “blatantly misrepresented scientific studies”some by its own expertsas part of a “seemingly purposeful attempt on the part of the agency to sweep important concerns under the rug and improperly minimize the environmental consequences of their action.”
The Forest Service acknowledged in its review there is no threat of a severe fire in the next few years because the area already is burned over and that even 20 years from now “only surface and passive fire would occur, even in severe fire weather conditions.”
The effect of a fire like that is “ecologically positive, based upon the science,” according to the lawsuit filed by the Earth Island Institute, its John Muir Project and the Center for Biological Diversity.
The agency said that while the fire threat is not imminent, the dead and dying trees also pose a hazard when they fall to the forest floor.
“Angora project area is very heavily used for hiking, mountain biking, dog walking and other activities and the longer the implementation of the project is delayed, the higher the likelihood that trees will topple and cause injury or death,” USFS said.
Forest Service officials maintain the critics are exaggerating the threat the logging poses to the woodpecker because they overestimate the bird’s dependence on severely burned forest for nesting and foraging, and disregard surveys that show it sometimes is found in unburned forests. They said they detected the bird in 12 out of 105 sites surveyed in unburned areas forest-wide in the Lake Tahoe Basin Management Unit in 2007, and concluded that the effect of salvage logging on the bird was “not entirely predictable.”
But the lawsuit said USFS has mischaracterized just how rare the unburned sightings are while dismissing the most recent science that shows the birds quickly flee even burned areas after post-fire salvage logging.
Even in untreated stands, they typically move on within eight years as the key attributes of the burned habitat have largely been restored to a greener condition by then with fewer insect-packed dead trees, the suit said.
Chad Hanson, executive director of the John Muir Project, points to part of the agency’s environmental assessment that says exactly that:
“Blackbacked woodpeckers depend upon recently burned and unlogged, moderate/high intensity, post fire habitat such that they must travel and disperse across the unburned forest once the habitat in burned forest areas become unsuitable due to the passage of time.”
At the same time, the suit says the agency bends the truth in the EA even when acknowledging the latest science, as it did when it mischaracterized the conclusions of a 2006 research paper co-authored by Richard Hutto, a biology professor and director of the Avian Science Center at the University of Montana in Helena who has been at the forefront of much of the research dating to the early 1990s.
The service said Hutto found “fewer nests in salvage-logged plots than in unlogged plots.” What it left out was the fact he’d found “numerous” nests in unlogged high intensity burned areas and found “zero” blackbacked nests in the logged areas, Hanson said.
“They did not merely find ‘fewer’ nests in salvage-logged area as the EA misleadingly stated,” he said.
Furthermore, Hutto’s study concluded nesting habitat for the woodpecker was indeed “destroyed by post-fire logging because of the severe loss of the food source surrounding nests,” Hanson said.
“They did not conclude, as the Forest Service EA suggested, that the effect of salvage logging on the nesting habitat is ‘not entirely predictable.'”
It’s just one example of where the agency “stretches the truth to the breaking point,” the lawsuit said, about the woodpecker that is “one of very rarestif not the rarestbirds in the Sierra Nevada.”
The Forest Service acknowledged in the latest court filings earlier this month that its description of the Hutto research was “imperfect,” but that it was “not material in any way to the disclosure of impacts from the project.”
“Thus plaintiffs quibble with the agency’s paraphrase of the study amounts to impermissible ‘fly-specking’ based on wording that is inconsequential,” the agency’s lawyers said.
Rodney Siegel, executive director of the Institute for Bird Populations and its Sierra Bird Observatory in Point Reyes Station, Calif., has done significant research for the Forest Service in recent years specifically on the black-backed woodpecker in the Sierra. He said there’s no question that the birds exist in unburned forests in the Sierra Nevada.
“But they are dramatically more abundant in burned areas,” he said.
Hutto puts it a different way.
“I like to tell people,” he told The Associated Press in a recent interview, “I’ll give you $10,000 for every black-backed woodpecker you can find outside burned forests if you’ll give me $10,000 for every one I find in burned forests and we’ll see who is a millionaire first.”