FRESNO, Calif. (CN) — Three conservation groups sued the National Park Service in federal court on Monday over a plan to minimize wildfire damage by leveling trees and burning land in the Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks.
The project involves cutting more than 1,000 acres of timber with chainsaws, intended to thin the forest near remote, giant sequoia trees, thus protecting them from the damage of severe wildfires. In addition, the project calls for prescribed burning in over 20,000 acres, much of the land within designated wilderness areas.
Wilderness Watch, Sequoia ForestKeeper and Tule River Conservancy said the parks service provided no public scoping notice or opportunity for public input before the October decision memo that implemented the project, violating the Wilderness and National Environmental Policy Acts.
In fact, the groups only learned of the project after seeing a press release posted to the Park Service website after the Oct. 14 approval. Workers began felling trees the next day. The project is ongoing.
“The intensive motorized tree-cutting activity and expansive use of manager-ignited fire and associated activities of the project will disturb the peace and quiet and the solitude of the wilderness as well as permanently impair its natural, undisturbed quality,” the groups wrote in the 18-page lawsuit filed in the Eastern District of California.
Designated wilderness lands must be treated with a hands-off approach, unlike what the Park Service is planning, the groups say, and the agency undermined the legally required process for public input and an analysis of environmental effects.
The groups are asking a judge to set aside the Park Service’s October decision memo, issue an injunction stopping it from performing the project, require it to make an environmental report and come up with alternatives to the proposed plan. They’re also asking for costs of the suit and attorneys’ fees.
A representative for the National Park Service couldn’t be reached for comment by publication time.
According to the conservation groups, the Park Service framed the project’s approval as “emergency activities.” However, the project anticipates future “emergencies” over an unknown amount of time.
That means the project isn’t limited to any immediate impacts of an emergency — a maneuver intended to bypass the National Environmental Policy Act and enable the Park Service to approve long-term action beyond what’s allowed by the existing framework.
In other words, the Park Service has claimed an “emergency” to avoid legal compliance, even though the project, which covers tens of thousands of acres, can't properly be deemed as restricted to the immediate impacts of an emergency.
Additionally, the Park Service’s use of chainsaws and helicopters to fell trees and implement prescribed burns highlights its disregard of wilderness protection. “Fuels reduction” and forest “treatment” have been used to obfuscate commercial timber activity for decades, especially in the non-wilderness parts of the national forest system, the groups said.
“Members of these organizations value wilderness and have interests in protecting wilderness whether or not they ever set foot inside its boundaries,” the groups wrote.
“They value wilderness for its own sake, for the sake of wildlife who find increasingly scarce refuge there, and for the sake of current and future generations who rely on the preservation of wilderness for a multitude of personal, spiritual, societal, and ecological reasons.”
The groups said their staff, members and supporters have long sought out wilderness areas with giant sequoia trees in their natural, untouched landscape. The Park Service has intruded into the natural systems of Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Park Wilderness areas in its efforts to intervene in the ecosystem and habitat.
"[The National Park Service's] museum-diorama approach of coercing environmental conditions injures plaintiffs’ legal interest, under the Wilderness Act, in having the landscape protected from human activity so that plaintiffs’ staff, members, and supporters may observe, learn from, and appreciate ecological changes (including sequoia mortality and forest succession) as dictated only by the wild landscape itself," the groups wrote.
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