SACRAMENTO (CN) - A federal judge refused to dismiss a professor's claim that the U.S. Forest Service is damaging the Lake Tahoe watershed by clearing timber and brush and depositing the slash in streams and wetlands.
U.S. District Judge Garland Burrell Jr. ruled Tuesday that the Forest Service's argument was based upon faulty evidence and that plaintiff Dennis Murphy, Ph.D., did not waive his legal challenge to the Upper Echo Lakes Hazardous Fuels Reduction Projection by failing to comment during a public comment period.
Burrell denied all three of the Forest Service's claims for dismissal.
Murphy, a former consultant for the Forest Service, claims the agency violated the National Environmental Protection Act when it invoked a categorical exclusion for an environmental assessment, and falsely claimed that the project "does not individually or cumulatively have a significant effect on the human environment." The Forest Service also implemented the project contrary to the description in a memo sent to the public, Murphy said.
The fuel reduction project is in El Dorado County, in the Lake Tahoe Basin. It is meant to reduce the potential for a catastrophic wildfire and provide defensible space to communities, according to a Forest Service memo .
The Forest Service said the project encompasses just 100 acres and is therefore exempt from an environmental assessment.
In a statement to Courthouse News, Murphy said he appreciates the court's ruling but that it doesn't remedy the main cause of his lawsuit: the Forest Service's clearing of a sparsely forested basin with the lowest fire risk in the Lake Tahoe watershed.
"The Forest Service has inexplicably misrepresented the risk of wildfire on the Echo Lakes, redirected limited funds that were moved from federal land sales in southern Nevada to Lake Tahoe, which were intended to address areas with the highest risk of wildfire, declined to carry out even the most rudimentary environmental assessment in one of California's premier and accessible wildlands, ignored requirements under the Endangered Species Act, and then undertook cutting old growth pine and fir and ripping out knee-high, subalpine chaparral, then depositing the slash in stream courses and sensitive wetlands," Murphy told Courthouse News.
Murphy is an adjunct professor at the University of Nevada, Reno and was the lead author of the Lake Tahoe Watershed Assessment , which he wrote for the Forest Service in 2000.
He said he decided to sue the Forest Service after it starting removing trees while it was supposed to be negotiating a more environmentally friendly solution.
"The agency is fully aware that it is damaging the Lake Tahoe watershed, intends to continue to do so and to waste public dollars in doing so," Murphy said. "The Forest Service's response to my plea to protect the sensitive Echo Lakes environment is to ask the court to throw out the messenger, because he didn't catch up to the completely unexpected and wholly wasteful agency action on the Echo Lakes, since, after all the agency had offered notice of the deceit in a local newspaper."
During the planning process for the project in 2011, the Forest Service submitted scoping letters and maps to local organizations and placed an ad in the local paper inviting public comment. The Forest Service says it received just seven public comments, none from Murphy.
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