Lawyers for the Earth Island Institute’s John Muir Project and the Center for Biological Diversity filed the request late Wednesday in the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals in San Francisco. The conservation groups, who have already lost a federal challenge to the logging plan, want a temporary order to block the logging until they get a formal hearing to make their case.
The groups accused the Forest Service of pushing the $3 million project in violation of several environmental laws under the guise of reducing the risk of another catastrophic wildfire like the Angora blaze, which burned about 3,000 acres of national forest land bordering South Lake Tahoe in the summer of 2007. They say the forest should be left to its own regeneration.
The Forest Service maintains the logging of about 1,400 acres of both green and burned trees is necessary to reduce fire threats and speed restoration of the area to the benefit of fish and wildlife.
“If dead trees are left standing, they create a safety risk to forest users as the trees continue to decay, become brittle and fall, and potentially fuel a catastrophic fire in the future,” lawyers representing the agency wrote in court briefs filed Monday.
But Rachel Fazio, the lead lawyer for the plaintiffs, said “there is no reason to push ahead with this right now.”
“Especially at a time when the government is in a fiscal crisis, we shouldn’t be spending the money on something that doesn’t need to be done,” she told The Associated Press on Thursday.
The Forest Service’s own scientific data indicated the project will increase fire threats over the next 20 years while eliminating the last habitat in the Tahoe basin for the rare black-backed woodpecker, which is highly dependent on dead and dying trees in recently burned stands, Fazio said.
“The agency admits there is not a current fire risk in the Angora project area and even if no action whatsoever is taken, 10 more years from now fire risk will remain extremely low,” she wrote in a legal brief. “In fact, the record indicates that two decades from now, fire type and behavior would be slightly more severe if the area is logged.”
Forest Service spokeswoman Cheva Heck said the agency intends to go forward with the project beginning on Tuesday. She said she was trying to contact Justice Department lawyers representing the service in the case but had no immediate comment on the appeal.
Ignacia Moreno, assistant attorney general in the U.S. Justice Department’s Environment & Natural Resources Division, has said in court documents that an injunction pending appeal “could completely derail the project due to a potential loss of funding.”
The conservationists are appealing because U.S. District Judge Garland Burrell Jr. in Sacramento ruled against them earlier this month.
Burrell determined the Forest Service had provided “persuasive evidence” that delaying the logging project would “present a risk of catastrophic fire .... and an increased safety risk from hazardous trees falling, creating dangerous conditions for forest users, including forest workers implementing restoration work and firefighters.”
Both sides agree the burned Angora site contains some of the rarest, most biologically diverse forest habitat on the 147,000-acre national forest known as the Lake Tahoe Basin Management Unit.
The environmentalists claim the black-backed woodpecker already is at risk of local extinction because that type of intensely burned forest — packed with tasty insects and bugs — has declined by nearly two-thirds over the past century due to fire suppression.
They say the Angora project would eliminate more than half of that type of habitat that remains in the basin.
The Forest Service disagreed, pointing to findings in a formal environmental assessment that determined the bird’s population is stable and well-distributed throughout the Sierra.
But the opponents said the agency has provided no data to back up that conclusion.
Chad Hanson, executive director of the John Muir Project based in Cedar Ridge, Calif., said the five studies cited in the assessment “simply did not provide any data that could be used to infer a stable trend in black-backed woodpecker population distribution in California.”
Two of them don’t even mention the woodpecker, he said, and a third indicates “they may be declining.”