By NICHOLAS IOVINO
SAN FRANCISCO (CN) – An attorney on Tuesday accused the U.S. Forest Service of prioritizing money-making over environmental protection when it approved logging on 2,000 acres of a protected watershed in Northern California.
“Economic factors were considered to a degree that was inappropriate,” Susan Jane Brown told a Ninth Circuit panel.
Brown represents the Karuk Tribe and four environmental groups, who are appealing a federal magistrate judge’s refusal to grant an injunction this past April to stop commercial logging on the Klamath River watershed near the California-Oregon border.
The groups say the Klamath National Forest’s Westside Fire Recovery Project, intended to remove fire-scorched trees and help prevent future fires, threatens endangered species and actually increases the risk of forest fires and landslides.
Representing intervener defendants Siskiyou County and a timber industry group, attorney Julie Weis said the government did not approve the project simply to make money. Rather, it sought an economically viable way to remove dead trees that cause unsafe conditions.
“The timber contract allowed the Forest Service to get this done,” Weis said.
Because of dryer conditions, the dead trees would lose their commercial value in a few years, and the Forest Service would have to use taxpayer dollars to remove them, she argued.
Brown countered that smaller pieces of wood and brush contribute most to the spread of wildfires, but the Forest Service chose to clear larger dead trees instead for the sake of profits.
“If they were serious about reducing fire risk, they would remove small-diameter fuels,” Brown argued.
The environmental lawyer further contended that the National Marine Fisheries Service wrongly concluded the project would not threaten the existence of endangered coho salmon and Northern spotted owls – a finding based on unfunded mitigation plans that likely will not occur, she said.
“Because those project elements will not be completed, the decision is arbitrary and capricious,” Brown told the three-judge panel.
Weis replied that the Klamath National Forest has successfully competed for grants and won $4 million for forest fire fuel reduction, and the money will be used for the project.
U.S. Justice Department attorney Jeffrey Beelaert added that landslides pose the biggest risk to endangered salmon in the Klamath River watershed. Clearing dead trees to make way for new ones is the best way to mitigate that risk, he argued.
“How do you prevent landslides?” Beelaert asked. “By planting new trees.”
Brown also cited a 2007 Ninth Circuit ruling, Oregon Nat. Res. Council Fund v. Brong, which found a plan to clear dead trees from a sensitive habitat in Southwest Oregon violated land management requirements under the 1994 Northwest Forest Plan.
The Westside Fire Recovery Project will clear 81 percent of dead trees, or snags, far more than 2/3 of snags slated for removal in the Brong case, Brown argued.
But Weis replied the forest in Southwest Oregon has different conditions, and snags there survive longer in the wetter climate.
“Here, snags don’t persist in the same way,” Weis said.
The attorneys presented their arguments to Ninth Circuit Judges Mary Schroeder, Stephen Reinhardt and John Owens.
In 2014, wildfires burned approximately 162,580 acres of the 1.7 million-acre Klamath National Forest.
The Westside Recovery Project, which was approved this past February and started in the spring, authorized commercial logging of fire-scorched trees on 5,570 acres of national forest land.
The lawsuit to stop logging on 2,000 acres of the Klamath River Watershed was filed on March 3 this year. The plaintiffs include the Karuk Tribe, Environmental Protection Information Center, Klamath-Siskiyou Wildlands Center, Klamath Riverkeeper, and Center For Biological Diversity.
Logging operations started in the Klamath River wetlands on April 20 and should be completed within the next few weeks, depending on weather, according to Dan Blessing, natural resource officer for the Klamath National Forest.