USA — A renowned conservation biologist who has done research for the Forest Service for more than a decade is suing the agency to try to block logging in the mountains above Lake Tahoe. He says it’s being done illegally under the guise of reducing wildfire threats that don’t exist.
Dennis Murphy, a Pew Scholar research professor in biology at the University of Nevada, Reno, says the Forest Service is ignoring its own analysis of the low fire risk in the high-altitude, old-growth forest on about 100 acres surrounding Echo Lakes, about 8 miles southwest of South Lake Tahoe, Calif.
“Cutting activities on the Pacific Crest Trail/Tahoe Rim Trail in the scenic Lake Tahoe Basin are occurring where no material threat of wildfire exists at all,” said Murphy, whose family has owned a cabin for three generations in the area on the edge of the Desolation Wilderness high atop the Sierra Nevada.
The logging threatens the survival of the Sierra Nevada yellow-legged frog, which the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has proposed be listed as an endangered species, said Murphy, past president of the Society of Conservation Biology.
The project is within the area the agency proposed in April for designation as habitat critical to the frog, he said.
“In its zeal to implement the project, the Forest Service has disregarded these facts and is violating the mandatory procedures of the National Environmental Policy Act by blazing ahead,” according to his lawsuit filed in U.S. District Court in Sacramento on Nov. 6.
Murphy was the lead editor of the two-volume Lake Tahoe Watershed Assessment prepared for the U.S. Forest Service in 2000. He has served on three different panels for the National Academy of Sciences, including the Committee on Scientific Issues in the Endangered Species Act.
His lawyer, Paul Weiland of Irvine, Calif., filed a motion on Thursday seeking a temporary restraining order to suspend the logging operations and asked for a chance to present their case to U.S. District Judge Garland Burrell during an emergency hearing Monday.
But Burrell denied the request late Friday, saying Murphy had known about the project for months and should have made the request sooner if it were truly an emergency. That means the case will continue on a regular schedule, with no trial date yet set.
Forest Service officials declined to comment and referred questions to U.S. Justice Department officials in Sacramento who are representing the agency in the case.
Lauren Horwood, spokeswoman for the U.S. Attorney’s Office there, told The Associated Press on Friday that she couldn’t comment on pending litigation.
Forest Service Supervisor Nancy Gibson, who oversees the Lake Tahoe Basin Management Unit, said in a formal decision implementing the project in November 2012 that it qualified for an exemption to a usually required environmental assessment or environmental impact statement.
Gibson said there was no critical habitat identified or proposed for federally listed species within the project boundaries.
But that changed in April when the Fish and Wildlife Service designed the critical habitat for the frog and proposed the endangered listing.
Murphy’s lawsuit says the Forest Service “short-circuited” the environmental review process by improperly invoking the exemption months before notifying the public of the scope of the logging.