Ruling likely to slow burning - But it won't stop fire prevention efforts, forest managers say.
December 7, 2007
Carrie Peyton Dahlberg
Brush clearing and preventive burning in national forests in the Sierra might be delayed up to a year under a new federal court ruling but won't be halted entirely, several forest managers said Thursday.
The impact on backcountry logging was less clear in the wake of Wednesday's federal court ruling that eliminated an environmental shortcut for certain fire-prevention work.
Two environmental groups that sued to abolish the shortcut said such logging now faces a much more rigorous environmental review, but the U.S. Forest Service had no immediate comment.
The Forest Service silenced its regional foresters on Wednesday's ruling, advising them to direct all inquiries to a Washington, D.C., press office that provided only a generic statement.
Still, informal assessments from the overseers of several proposals for brush clearing or preventive burning said they don't expect their work to be halted. They just anticipate longer, costlier environmental reviews.
Duncan Leao, a forester in the Forest Service's Lake Tahoe Basin Management Unit, said studies of a plan to bu rn up to 2,000 acres in at least 20 locations could take "a few months longer" under the court ruling.
People who live around Lake Tahoe won't notice any difference in the burns themselves, which are planned for a few hundred acres a year over six years, Leao said. Only the paperwork and the price tag will change.
"The bottom line is that it will cost more and take a little longer, and we won't be able to initiate treatment when we want to," he said.
A cluster of Forest Service cabins east of Alta, in Tahoe National Forest, might have to wait as much as a year longer before crews come to clean out deadwood and underbrush, said Karen Jones, a federal silviculturist.
She said that in her office, "people are scrambling" to understand the effect of the court ruling, asking themselves, "Do we need to change priorities? Do we need to scrap projects?"
At issue is a 2003 rule that exempts from full environmental review preventive burning of less than 4,500 acres and logging on less than 1,000 acres.
The provision was abused by the Forest Service to raise revenues by allowing commercial logging in remote areas, far from any risk to people or property, said Craig Thomas, executive director of the Sierra Forest Legacy, which joined the Sierra Club in suing the Forest Service.
On Wednesday the two groups prevailed, as the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that the Forest Service must perform detailed environmental assessments of such projects.
Thomas singled out Eldorado National Forest as a particularly flagrant offender under the looser rules.
"Eldorado National Forest has grossly abused its discretion and has turned its whole logging program into things miraculously under 1,000 acres," Thomas said. "All of a sudden, everything they're doing shows up around 900 acres."
Frank Mosbacher, Eldorado's spokesman, said he had been instructed not to discuss any specifics of the suit, but added that "we follow the law" and don't allow trees bigger than 2 1/2 feet in diameter to be logged.
That is still much too big, according to one summer cabin user who could be affected by the lawsuit.
"We go to the forest because it's beautiful, not because it's a clear-cut area," said Marleen Fouche, a Berkeley tech writer whose grandparents bought a cabin in the 1920s near Alta, in a tiny summer community called Casa Loma tract.
If her forest getaway has to wait an extra year for brush clearing because of the lawsuit, "I would understand it completely," said Fouche.
"Organizations do have to go to court to clarify the law, to ensure things don't go forward without an environmental report," she said. "If it means sacrificing the small projects, so be it."
In Tahoe National Forest where Fouche's cabin stands, three to four projects annually probably have been approved under the environmental exemption, said silviculturist Jones.
In Eldorado forest, it's been turned to much more extensively.
"We made use of that legislation to get some good stuff done," said Jeff Barnhart, district field officer for the Georgetown ranger district. Yet he and others acknowledged that projects targeting larger trees are geared less to fire prevention and more to providing financial incentives for loggers.
Give timber companies enough big trees, the thinking goes, and they'll be willing to also clear unprofitable small trees and brush whose removal is critical to reducing the spread and intensity of forest fires.
The appeals court ruling estimates that in spring, Eldorado had 15 or more projects covering more than 8,000 acres that used the special environmental exemption.
A quick review by Thomas of more-recent proposals indicated at least a dozen are planned, several "in the boonies" removed from any communities or even year-round roads.
What will become of those backwoods projects is unclear, because even a tougher review doesn't necessarily mean they would be abandoned.
It's unclear exactly when the new provisions will take effect. The court sent the case back to U.S. District Judge Garland Burrell Jr. to issue an injunction that will apply to national forests nationwide.