In addition to removing downed logs that hamper firefighting efforts, the Forest Service says the Angora project will help speed regeneration of the forest and restore wildlife habitat across about half of the 3,000 acres that burned on the southwest edge of South Lake Tahoe, Calif., in June 2007.
But the Earth Island Institute and Center for Biological Diversity say the logging would do more harm than good.
They say the project would do little to reduce fire threats but would disrupt the natural regeneration of the forest and eliminate about 70 percent of the last suitable habitat for the rare black-backed woodpecker across the entire 230 square miles of the national forest surrounding Lake Tahoe.
The Forest Service’s own research shows the woodpecker is highly dependent on burned forest where beetles and other insects are plentiful, especially where the fire burned intensely, as was the case across about a third of the Angora site, the lawsuit said.
The agency designated the bird the “management indicator species” for post-fire habitat throughout the Sierra Nevada in 2007. Last September, the Center for Biological Diversity and the institute’s John Muir Project petitioned the California Fish and Game Commission to declare it threatened or endangered under the state’s Endangered Species Act.
“If the black-backed woodpecker is going to survive here in California, we can’t keep logging its habitat. And this is exactly the kind of habitat it needs,” said Justin Augustine, a staff attorney for the Center for Biological Diversity who helped prepare the lawsuit filed on Friday in U.S. District Court in Sacramento.
The logging would cover an area larger than 1,000 football fields. Live trees, some bigger than 2 feet in diameter, are mixed into the mosaic. But much of the area is covered with larger downed logs and standing snags that the lawsuit argues wouldn’t be susceptible to fire for a decade or longer.
“The Forest Service’s own science concludes there is not a present fire risk within the Angora fire area due to the recency of the Angora fire and the low fuel levels,” the lawsuit said.
Forest Service spokeswoman Cheva Heck said on Friday she couldn’t comment on ongoing litigation but noted that in October the agency rejected the same arguments raised in administrative appeals filed by the groups.
“The fuels reduction and live tree thinning component of the project accounts for the habitat needs of wildlife, forest health and resilience, and the need to reduce the risk of another severe fire close to our communities,” Heck said.
Dead trees already are falling on a daily basis in the fire area “and this will grow as a problem as more decay and weaken,” she said. “By removing trees now, we also avoid creating new impacts to the forest a decade or more from now when it’s begun to recover.”
The Forest Service estimates the project will cost the agency about $3 million. Unlike most salvage logging projects intended to recover some merchantable timber before it rots, the Angora project anticipates most if not all of the wood will be chipped for biomass.
The environmentalists said the agency should save its money, leave the forest alone and let it grow back naturally.
“They are saying they are doing it for fuels reduction, which doesn’t make any sense,” said Chad Hanson, director of the John Muir Project. “Especially in a burn area, the worst thing you can do is get in there with a chain saw and bulldozers and tractors and herbicides.”
“Basically it’s just a give-away to the biomass industry. It is taxpayer-subsidized clear-cutting of some of the rarest and most important habitat for the black-backed woodpecker in the Sierra Nevada. And they are doing it for kilowatts,” he said.
The lawsuit said the Forest Service’s own review concludes the project would leave behind only enough habitat to support two dozen or fewer pairs of black-backed woodpeckers, and the critics say even that is an exaggeration.
The suit said the agency has never determined the minimum population needed to maintain a viable population “or whether the Angora project would push black-backed woodpecker populations below this critical threshold and threaten the population’s viability across the forest."
Heck said the agency believes the bird’s population is stable and that the logging won’t harm it.
“We are confident that the proposal, which leaves 1,168 acres untreated to provide diverse vegetation and wildlife habitat, addresses the habitat needs of the black-backed woodpecker,” she said.