A federal district court judge ruled late Tuesday that U.S. Forest Service management plans for four Southern California national forests did not adequately protect those forests' wildest landscapes.
In the ruling, U.S. District Court Judge Marilyn Hall Patel agreed with seven environmental groups that the Forest Service failed to assess cumulative damage to those national forests that would be caused by piecemeal road building and other development in most of the forests' roadless areas, in violation of the National Environmental Policy Act.
The environmental groups, represented in the suit by Earthjustice attorneys Erin Tobin and Trent Orr, are the Center for Biological Diversity, Los Padres ForestWatch, Sierra Club, Defenders of Wildlife, California Native Plant Society, California Wilderness Coalition, and The Wilderness Society.
"Some of the most wild and pristine areas of southern California's national forests were given a second chance with this court decision," said Ileene Anderson of the Center for Biological Diversity. "These areas provide critically important strongholds for endangered species such as steelhead, the California condor and the arroyo toad; especially during this time of climate change."
"The decision vindicates the public's right to know how our national forests are managed," said Earthjustice attorney Erin Tobin. "It is a victory for southern California's wild areas and wildlife, healthy forests, and clean drinking water."
At issue are more than a million acres of roadless areas within the Angeles, Los Padres, Cleveland and San Bernardino National Forests. The four forests, surrounded by some of the most rapidly urbanizing land in the United States, are the last remaining refuge for the region's imperiled species such as the California condor. At the same time, the forests are increasingly subject to disturbances ranging from off-road vehicle abuse to oil and gas development to invasive species, the impacts of many of which are exacerbated by road building.
The challenged management plans recommended just 79,000 acres of roadless areas for possible wilderness designation and slotted more than 942,000 acres for possible road building or other development. According to the court's ruling, the Forest Service violated federal environmental law by ignoring the "larger picture" of how allowing more development in roadless areas — while recommending almost no such areas for permanent wilderness protection — would affect the forests' irreplaceable landscapes and wildlife.
The court also ruled that the Forest Service's failure to consider alternative approaches for monitoring the health of forests and their wildlife that are harmed by wildfire management, energy development, and substantial off-road vehicle use was a further violation of the law.
"Forest plans are not empty documents to be placed on the shelf. They're important roadmaps for resource conservation," said Kim Delfino, the California program director for Defenders of Wildlife. "California's national forests are some of the last remaining wild places in our state, and smart planning is essential to protecting the resources that make up our national forests, especially vital wildlife habitat."
"This ruling pulls the rug out from under the Forest Service's decision to recommend only a paltry acreage of wilderness within the four southern California national forests," said David Edelson, California Regional Director of The Wilderness Society. "We urge the agency to reconsider its decision and to work with Congress to provide the permanent wilderness protection that the region's outstanding wildlands deserve."
"John Muir called for the protection of all wild places," said Joyce Burk of the Sierra Club's Southern California Forests Committee. "Judge Patel's decision is a great step in the right direction. We applaud her decision."
The Forest Service revised the forest plans for the four national forests in 2005 in response to a 1998 lawsuit by the Center for Biological Diversity. The Forest Service largely ignored a comprehensive conservation alternative developed by the Center and a coalition of other conservation groups during the revision process. That alternative would have put in place protections necessary to safeguard the forests' unique biological diversity. The seven environmental groups filed suit over this and several other flaws in the plans in 2008.
The four national forests of Southern California include over 3.5 million acres of public land from Big Sur to the Mexican border. The forests host a high diversity of ecosystems, including chaparral, oak woodlands, savannas, deserts, and alpine areas. They provide important habitat for numerous sensitive, threatened, and endangered animals. Currently, these areas are significantly affected by poorly managed roads, increasing demands for motorized recreation from the growing populations in Los Angeles and San Diego, oil and gas development, urban infrastructure, and other developmental pressures.
The Los Padres National Forest encompasses nearly 2 million acres in the coastal mountains of central California, stretching almost 220 miles from the Big Sur coast in Monterey County to the western edge of Los Angeles County. The Angeles National Forest is near Los Angeles and contains 663,000 acres. The San Bernardino National Forest includes 665,700 acres, and abuts the Inland Empire. The Cleveland National Forest includes 420,000 acres in Orange and San Diego Counties.
Many species of imperiled wildlife, including the arroyo toad, California condor, California red-legged frog, California spotted owl, least Bell's vireo, northern goshawk, Santa Ana sucker, Sierra Nevada mountain yellow-legged frog, southern California steelhead trout, southwestern willow flycatcher, and the unarmored threespine stickleback, will be affected by the new plans. Over 20 million Californians live within one hour's drive of at least one of these four national forests.
Read the court decision (PDF)