The Sierra Nevada Framework Revisions
May 26, 2011
Read the latest Ninth circuit court opinion here.
You can read more about the history of the struggle to restore the landmark 2001 Framework below.
September 1, 2009
Last summer, in decisions in May and August, 2008, the federal courts ruled that the Forest Service acted illegally by not considering all alternatives in their adoption of the 2004 revisions to the landmark 2001 Sierra Nevada Forest Plan Amendment (Sierra Framework). That decision was appealed by the Forest Service and the forest products industry. On August 13, 2009, the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals upheld the court's previous decision. This remands the case back to the district court in Sacramento. You can read the legal opinion on this website, at the bottom of the column to your right, and all the background documents as well.
The following information summarizes our reasons for opposing the revision of the 2001 Framework forest plan, and the legal battles we have waged in the process of trying to get the Forest Service back on track with a balanced, science-based 21st century management plan.
Background: In January of 2004, the Forest Service made revisions to the landmark 2001 Sierra Nevada Framework, effectively removing the most scientifically credible and ecologically protective measures of the plan. After numerous comments, over 6000 appeals, and unparalleled public opposition to the changes, the Chief of the Forest Service still approved the changes.
Key facts about the Framework Revisions:
- Old-growth forests: The revisions eliminate critical protection for the Sierra's remaining old-growth forests. Under the original Framework, all old-growth stands one acre or larger would be off-limits to most logging, and 4.25 million acres of land would be managed as old forest emphasis areas to promote old-growth values. The Bush Administration’s revisions eliminated protection for old-growth stands and allow widespread logging of medium and large trees from within these areas.
- Fuels reduction and forest health: The revision’s plan to reduce the fire risk includes cutting large trees throughout the forest while the most effective way to reduce the risk of catastrophic fires is by focusing on reducing the most flammable fuels in the forest, known as surface and ladder fuels. Logging also increases fire severity by leaving behind highly combustible logging slash, while loss of tree canopy encourages the growth of flammable brush, increases wind speed and air temperature and decreases humidity in the forest, exacerbating fire conditions.
- Commercial logging: The original Framework plan allows logging only as a means for reducing the risk of catastrophic wildfire and restricts logging to selective thinning of smaller trees. The Bush Administration’s revisions reopened the door to widespread commercial logging throughout the Sierra Nevada by authorizing logging to address "forest health" problems, which tangibly affects millions of acres of national forest lands. The revisions were projected by the Forest Service to triple the volume of logging compared to the original Framework.
- California spotted owl: The California spotted owl is a sensitive species that inhabits old forests in the Sierra Nevada. The Bush Administration’s revisions weaken protection for the owl's habitat in numerous respects. For instance, the revisions allow logging of trees up to 30 inches in diameter throughout the Sierra Nevada, allow tree canopy cover to be substantially reduced, and allow increased logging within the owl's home range core areas and nest stands.
- Pacific fisher: The Pacific fisher is a rare, imperiled furbearing mammal that is closely associated with dense, old forests and that once ranged widely in the Sierra Nevada and the Pacific Northwest. Logging and habitat fragmentation have contributed to the fisher's extirpation from most of its historic range. The isolated fisher population in the southern Sierra is unlikely to survive in the absence of habitat protection and restoration. The revision’s logging plan allows significant degradation of fisher habitat and removes the original Framework's specific protection for the southern Sierra fisher conservation area.
- Livestock grazing: Excessive livestock grazing has numerous adverse environmental impacts, particularly in sensitive areas like meadows, streams, and riparian zones. The original Framework requires that grazing be restricted and managed to protect these fragile areas and to reduce adverse effects on imperiled species like the Willow flycatcher, Yosemite toad, and Mountain yellow-legged frog. The Bush Administration’s revisions significantly weaken limitations on grazing, putting these imperiled species at great risk.
- Quincy Library Group: The Quincy Library Group (QLG) plan if enacted as the Framework revisions require would devastate national forests in the northern Sierra Nevada by allowing tens of thousands of acres of small clearcuts and hundreds of thousands of acres of fuel breaks that will destroy and fragment forest habitat. The original Framework limits the QLG plan because of its adverse environmental impacts, particularly on the California spotted owl.
- Environmental review: The Forest Service significantly abbreviated the environmental review process required by existing laws by describing the proposed changes to the Framework as non-significant. For this reason, the Forest Service did not provide a public scoping process prior to releasing the draft plan and environmental impact statement (EIS). Therefore, the public did not have an adequate opportunity to shape the proposal, the analysis, or the alternatives considered in the EIS.
As stated by California Attorney General Bill Lockyer, "With no basis in science and no new facts, the Bush Administration has jettisoned the product of more than 10 years of study, public participation and consensus building." In 2005, representing the State of California, he also filed suit to stop the revisions.
The revised plan was challenged by Sierra Forest Legacy and other environmental groups (Sierra Club, Natural Resources Defense Council, Center for Biological Diversity, and The Wilderness Society with representation by Earthjustice, a non-profit public interest environmental law firm based in Oakland, and the Sierra Club Environmental Law Program), on the grounds that the forest plan revisions failed to insure viability of old forest wildlife, contrary to the National Forest Management Act (NFMA), and that the EIS failed to comply with the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) in numerous respects. The lawsuit also alleged that the Basin Project on Plumas National Forest was contrary to NFMA and NEPA. By way of remedy, the lawsuit asked that the 2004 Framework be set aside, that the 2001 Framework be reinstated, and that the court (U.S. District Court Judge Morrison England) enjoin projects inconsistent with the 2001 Framework.
The parties filed motions for summary judgment in 2005 and 2006, and the case was argued before Judge England in June 2006. A year later, when Judge England had yet to issue a ruling in the case, the Forest Service announced that it was moving forward with several large logging projects implementing the 2004 Framework. In response, we filed a motion for preliminary injunction, asking Judge England to enjoin the Basin, Slapjack, and Empire Projects (all on Plumas National Forest) because the three projects implement the 2004 Framework, which we argued is contrary to law. Judge England denied our motion, and we appealed to the Ninth Circuit.
On May 14th 2008, the Ninth Circuit ruled in our favor, reversing Judge England’s decision and ordering a preliminary injunction enjoining the three projects to the extent they are inconsistent with the 2001 Framework. (The case, Sierra Forest Legacy v. Rey, is reported at 526 F.3d 1228 (9th Cir. 2008), also read here). The 9th Circuit ruled that the Forest Service violated NEPA by refusing to adequately analyze alternatives to the proposal to increase logging. Specifically, the court found that the 2004 Framework allows logging of large trees (i.e., 20” diameter and larger) that were protected by the 2001 Framework, and that the rationale for such logging is economic, not ecological. The court held that the Forest Service likely violated NEPA by failing to consider alternative means of funding fuels reduction, other than logging large trees, and that an injunction was warranted. Soon after the Ninth Circuit’s ruling, the Forest Service and timber industry requested that the ruling be reconsidered by the full Ninth Circuit (en banc); the petitions for rehearing are still pending.
This ruling also enjoined the Slapjack, Basin, and Empire projects which were at the heart of the lawsuit. Following this important ruling the 2004 Framework Revisions are no longer the guiding policy in the Sierra Nevada. The landmark 2001 Framework Plan is once again the determining factor for all projects proposed on forestlands in the Sierra. This is a major victory for the sensitive and imperiled wildlife species in the Sierra as well as the general ecological health of our forests.
On August 1, 2008, District Court judge Morrison England finally issued his summary judgment ruling in response to the summary judgment motions that have been pending for over two years. Judge England issued summary judgment in our favor on one issue – the failure of the 2004 Framework EIS to consider reasonable alternatives. The Ninth Circuit had set clear precedent for this issue in their May 14, 2008 ruling. On all other issues Judge England ruled in favor of the Forest Service and industry intervenors. A similar ruling followed, on August 19, 2008, in reponse to the lawsuit filed by the People of the State of California represented by the State Attorney General.
On August 13, 2009, the Ninth Circuit issued a new opinion authored by Judge Raymond Fisher that reaffirms and clarifies its decision from last year. The new opinion confirms not only that the Forest Service broke the law when it adopted the 2004 Framework, but also that logging big trees under the 2004 Framework “does nothing in itself to prevent forest fires, because large trees make poor fuel.” Accordingly, the new opinion sends the case back to the district court in Sacramento to decide whether the 2004 Framework should be set aside and the Clinton-era 2001 Framework reinstated. In reaching this decision, the Ninth Circuit reminded the district court that Legacy has never sought to stop the Forest Service from removing small diameter trees to reduce the risk of wildfire, but rather seeks only to prevent the commercial logging of large trees.
Want to learn more about the history of the Framework's development and the issues surrounding the revision to this landmark plan? Then you'll want to read this article from the journal Fremontia.