In an ongoing legal battle over forest restoration efforts in the 2013 Rim Fire footprint in Tuolumne County, a federal judge on Oct. 7 denied a request to issue a temporary restraining order on the United States Forest Service (USFS) that would have halted a logging project for the time being.
National conservation groups Earth Island Institute (“EII”), Sequoia Forestkeeper and Greenpeace Inc., along with James Hansen, a climate change scientist, brought litigation against USFS, the United States Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) and the California Department of Housing and Community Development (HCD) in September of 2019.
The Rim Fire scorched more than 257,000 acres of Stanislaus National Forest land east of Sonora in 2013.
The following year, the Forest Service spearheaded the Rim Fire Recovery Project to “improve the land and local economies most affected by the Rim Fire.” That included the salvage of dead trees. EII and other environmental groups unsuccessfully challenged this project in court, alleging that the Forest Service should’ve prepared a supplemental Environmental Impact Statement to assess impacts on spotted owl habitat, and that it should’ve taken a “hard look” at comments and evidence submitted during the review period of the project, according to court records.
In 2018, HUD allocated $28 million in disaster recovery grants to be administered by the state HCD to the Forest Service for removal of dead trees in areas of the Rim Fire scar that burned at a high intensity, according to the court filing. The grant also covers the construction costs of a biomass plant to incinerate the wood for power generation, the filing states.
In the current litigation, plaintiffs are alleging that the proposed logging activities on approximately 4,400 acres of forestland fall outside of a “disaster relief grant’s” scope, and that the three agencies broke environmental laws by accepting “outdated” Environmental Impact Statements from 2014 and 2016, which asserted that most of the forest proposed for logging would not regenerate naturally for several decades.
Dr. Chad Hanson of the John Muir Project, a project of EII, has been researching conifer regrowth in the Rim Fire footprint in recent years.
He claims that logging burned forests increases fire risk and destroys “postfire snag forest habitat, one of the most biodiverse and ecologically important forest habitat types.”
Commenting on the latest developments in the litigation, Hanson said, “The bar is very high to get a (temporary restraining order), so they are rarely granted. We disagree with the district court judge in the Northern District, who denied our request, but that’s water under the bridge at this point, as the case was transferred to the Eastern District, to Judge Drozd in Fresno.”
The lawsuit highlights a larger discussion over how and whether wildfire-ravaged public lands in the Sierra Nevada should be managed to protect watersheds, wildlife and communities from future fires. Both sides say the end goal is a healthy forest, but disagree on how to get there.
The Forest Service advocates for “fuels reduction” (logging), prescribed fire and reforestation treatments to reduce buildup of flammable trees that compete for water and nutrients.
By contrast, Hanson argues the forest should be left to regenerate on its own (with the exception of felling hazard trees around main roads and campgrounds), based, in part, on his documentation of trees sprouting up in the Rim Fire scar.
When asked for comment, a Forest Service representative told the Enterprise, “We cannot comment on ongoing litigation.”
John Buckley, executive director of the Twain Harte-based Central Sierra Environmental Resource Center (CSERC), has vocally opposed the litigation since it was filed.
Formed in 2010 with the goal of ramping up restoration efforts in the southern portion of the Stanislaus National Forest and adjacent landholdings, the Yosemite Stanislaus Solutions (YSS) collaborative stakeholder group includes representatives of the timber industry, grazing interests, local government, environmental organizations (including CSERC), business interests, motorized recreation groups, and state and federal agencies.
According to Buckley, YSS “unanimously supports moving forward to lower fuel levels in the Rim Fire area so as to reduce the risk of yet another devastating high severity wildfire in the future … Those who filed the suit are extreme environmental organizations actively working to block a wide range of forest restoration treatments that mainstream and local environmental groups believe are not only reasonable but highly needed.”
With the temporary restraining order denied, Buckley said there may only be approximately 1,000 acres – less than a quarter of the project area – left to be logged that could be affected by a court decision later this year.
The next court date is scheduled for Dec. 3 in Fresno. At that time, the court will determine whether or not the biomass removal of dead trees and fallen logs should be allowed to continue, whether pile burning in the forest is consistent with the Forest Service-approved plan, and whether the HUD grant is an appropriate funding source for the fuel reduction work, according to Buckley.