In a reversal of the Bush administration's attempt to accelerate logging for profit in the Sierra Nevada's national forests, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled today that the Forest Service likely violated long-standing federal environmental laws when revising the Sierra Nevada Framework, a management plan for all eleven national forests in eastern California. The revised plan, challenged by conservation organizations Sierra Forest Legacy, Sierra Club, The Wilderness Society, and others, calls for a more than five-fold increase in the amount of logging across the Sierra range, targets large fire-resistant trees to pay for the logging, and shifts fire prevention resources away from communities.
The original challenge, filed in the U. S. District Court for the Eastern District of California, asserted that the 2004 revisions failed to disclose key scientific data regarding impacts on old growth forests, water and wildlife. In addition, critics say that the new plan decreases the level of fire safety and protection to homes and communities, focusing instead on increased logging of large, fire-resistant trees in the backcountry.
"Logging large trees away from populated areas does not address the real fire risk presented by more flammable understory growth near the forest floor," said Dr. Phil Rundel, Distinguished Professor of Biology at UCLA. "Fire scientists widely agree that logging can actually increase wildfire threats by eliminating large, fire-resistant trees and encouraging understory thickets that can ignite and spread wildfire into residential areas."
The Forest Service approved the original Sierra Nevada Forest Plan Amendment in January 2001 after more than a decade of scientific study and public outreach, to direct the management of 11.5 million acres of California's national forest lands. Less than a year after the original plan was adopted, the Bush administration announced that it would revise the plan to increase the amount of logging and limit protections for forests, water and wildlife throughout the Sierra.
According to Jim Lyons, former USDA Undersecretary for Natural Resources and Environment and key architect of the original Framework, "The 2001 Framework was a scientifically based and balanced plan for the Sierra that replaced a strategy that ignored basic ecosystem management principles. Unfortunately, it was never given a chance to work."
"The Ninth Circuit understood that the old-growth logging at issue here may turn a profit, but will not make the Sierra any safer if there's a fire," said Greg Loarie, an attorney with Earthjustice representing the conservation groups, "We desperately need the Forest Service to turn its attention away from the big trees and back to Sierra communities."
According to Marc Fink of the Center for Biological Diversity, "In order to protect our remaining old growth forests and the wildlife that depend on these forests, the Forest Service must develop balanced alternatives to logging large, fire-resistant trees."
Craig Thomas, director of Sierra Forest Legacy, stated, "We have been working hard to advance fuels reduction projects consistent with the 2001 Framework, which provides protection to rural communities, old-growth forests, wildlife and our rivers and streams." Thomas, a Sierra resident, added, "The court has made it clear that we don't have to choose between community safety and environmental protection. We can have both."
Read the decision (PDF)