Amidst ongoing national debate about the environmental damage caused by Forest Service roads, a federal district court issued a sweeping injunction against the Forest Service on Monday halting all work on over 140 reconstruction projects on secondary roads in northern California's Klamath National Forest. The lawsuit, brought by the Earthjustice Legal Defense Fund on behalf of the northern California-based Klamath Forest Alliance, challenged the Forest Service's decision to rebuild flood-damaged roads without taking environmental consequences into account.
The court's decision comes on the heels of Forest Service Chief Michael Dombeck's announced 18-month moratorium on road building in roadless areas pending the development of a nationwide policy on roads in national forests. Environmentalists around the country have been drawing increased attention to the threat that logging roads pose to fish, wildlife resources, and drinking water in national forests.
Five thousand miles of logging roads, most of which are rarely used, crisscross the steep terrain of the Klamath National Forest. The roads at issue in the lawsuit washed out during the severe storms and flooding that hit the Klamath National Forest on New Year's day in 1997. Landslides triggered by these roads caused extensive damage to salmon habitat, blocking migration routes and burying spawning beds. The Forest Service rebuilt major transportation routes and roads accessing private lands, recreation areas, and timber sales soon after the storm. The lawsuit challenged the Forest Service's subsequent plans to rebuild lesser-used roads that are either closed to the public year around or not maintained for passenger car traffic.
"There are too many roads out there, roads that wreak havoc on the stream habitat salmon need to survive," said Kyle Haines, Klamath Forest Alliance's forest protection coordinator. "Roads are a big part of why salmon and steelhead in the Klamath are on the brink of extinction. The Forest Service failed to listen to their own line officers telling them these roads were killing fish, and blindly slated roads for repair that should be decommissioned."
The court found that the Forest Service violated the National Environmental Policy Act by failing to analyze environmental impacts and consider alternatives before investing millions of taxpayer dollars to rebuild these roads. The court rejected the Forest Service's position that such environmental analysis was unnecessary, noting that the agency's own scientists had concluded that the road reconstruction projects were likely to harm threatened salmon populations.
"The court has sent a clear message that the Forest Service must do more than just give lip service to the environmental devastation caused by roads," said Amy Sinden, an attorney with the Earthjustice Legal Defense Fund. "It is ridiculous to keep rebuilding old logging roads that no one uses when those roads are destroying our irreplaceable wild salmon runs."