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Federal judge declines to block redwood logging project

A federal judge found the harms posed to wildlife by a logging project in an old-growth redwood forest in the Gualala River watershed in Northern California "speculative."

SAN FRANCISCO (CN) — A timber company’s proposal to fell redwoods in a Northern California old-growth redwood forest won’t put endangered frogs and salmon species in harms way, a federal judge said Friday in declining to issue an order that would temporarily halt the project while conservationists pursue a legal challenge.

California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, or Cal Fire, approved the plan in September 2021, spurring a lawsuit from the Friends of Gualala River, a group dedicated to preserving the Gualala River watershed.

U.S. District Judge Vince Chhabria delivered his five-page ruling following a lengthy hearing last week, where FOGR argued that California Red-Legged frogs and salmon would be imperiled by falling trees and heavy machinery in the “Little North Fork” floodplain, an area of coastal Mendocino County.

Chhabria, who visited the site with the parties ahead of the hearing, said Friday that FOGR and its experts had presented only speculative evidence to show that the animals would be harmed. For one thing, he said, the record suggests few Red-Legged frogs are in the area.

“Second, even assuming that some frogs are present, it does not appear likely that the logging activities would injure any frogs or harm frog habitat,” he wrote, noting that Gualala Redwood Timber has erected a buffer around designated frog habitats. “And the plan calls for barriers and fencing to prevent frogs from wandering into roadways and trails trafficked by heavy machinery and felled trees,” he added.

Chhabria said it seems possible that the frog could be hurt by the operation, but the evidence is “not strong enough to conclude that harm to the frog is likely.”

He reached the same conclusion for Coho and Steelhead salmon.

“Just as uncertainty lingers as to whether the frog is in the Little THP [timber harvesting plan] area, the same goes for the fish, and particularly for the Coho. But even assuming that some Coho or Steelhead are present, it does not appear likely, from this record, that the harvesting operations will harm the fish or their habitats,” Chhabria wrote.

He said Gualala Redwood Timber also created buffer zones for the fish, agreeing not to harvest within 30 feet of the Gualala River and to limit its harvest within 120 feet to reduce the likelihood of hazardous sediment polluting the waterway.

Navtej Dhillon, a lawyer for the timber company, said he’s pleased with the ruling.

“We think the court’s analysis is pristinely correct. The plan has been analyzed very carefully by all the various regulatory agencies. So it’s not surprising to us.”

He said the timber company had fought multiple lawsuits against the conservation group over logging projects in the area.

“They’re just recycling the same arguments,” he said. “Plaintiffs are trying to show harm and are stacking inferences upon inference upon inference. They presented speculative evidence and failed to meet their burden.”

Stuart Gross, an attorney representing the conservationists, said Friday that he had not yet reviewed Chhabria’s ruling.

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