The U.S. Forest Service will pay $191,000 in legal fees to settle the lawsuit over its plan to allow commercial timber harvesting of fire-damaged trees in a California forest.
SAN FRANCISCO (CN) — The U.S. government has agreed to halt a plan to remove fire-damaged trees on 7,000 acres in a Northern California forest after the Ninth Circuit ruled last year that it should have studied the project’s impact on the environment first.
U.S. District Judge Edward Chen this week approved a settlement with an environmental group who sued to block the logging project in Mendocino National Forest in October 2019. An order approving the settlement was filed Monday but not recorded on the docket until Thursday.
Under the terms of that deal, the U.S. Forest Service will stop moving forward with planned timber sales in six areas of the forest. The service had already allowed private logging companies to cut down trees in about a third of the 7,000-acre area when the Ninth Circuit ordered it to stop the project this past August.
The project was intended to remove trees damaged by the 2018 Ranch Fire, which burned 410,000 acres including 288,000 acres in Mendocino National Forest. It was the largest wildfire in California history until August 2020, when the August Complex Fire burned over 1 million acres — also in Mendocino and five other counties.
The settlement will allow the government to move forward with tree-cutting work in one area of the forest under an M10-Letts Stewardship Agreement. That mostly involves “smaller diameter” trees and vegetation, not larger trees that an environmental group had objected to removing, according to the group’s lawyer, René Voss of Natural Resources Law.
Voss represents Environmental Protection Information Center, or EPIC, which sued to block the project. Voss said the government had adopted a formula that called for taking down trees with a 50% chance of survival. His client argued that formula would result in removing trees that serve as critical habitat for threatened species like the northern spotted owl.
“The big thing we got out of this is they agreed not to cut down trees that have a chance to survive,” Voss said.
Forest officials said the plan to charge private logging companies for the right to cut down trees, which they could sell for profit, was the best way to pay for clearing hazardous, fire-damaged trees near roads. Mendocino National Forest supervisor Ann Carlson said it was “highly unlikely” Congress would provide sufficient funding for the project, which was estimated to cost about $5.5 million.
Voss said those funding arrangements provide a perverse incentive for national forests to greenlight more logging projects because the proceeds go to the forests’ general budgets and are not used purely to pay for road maintenance. A U.S. Forest Service spokesman did not immediately respond to a request for comment on that claim.
Ann Carlson, forest supervisor of the Mendocino National Forest, defended the project as “well-designed and within the forest’s overall strategy for future fuel breaks and public safety.” She also noted the settlement will allow the service to continue some of what it planned without delay.
“We look forward to continuing to hear from and collaborating with the plaintiff and other interested parties as we consider future projects that ensure the safety of the public and future health and resiliency of our forests,” Carlson said in a statement.
In the Ninth Circuit’s ruling last year, U.S. Circuit Judge William Fletcher, a Bill Clinton appointee, commented that those funding arrangements could present conflicts of interest for the federal agency tasked with protecting the nation’s forests.
“A budgetary system that requires the authorization of commercial salvage logging operations in order to finance work necessary for public safety can put the Forest Service in an awkward and conflicted position in deciding whether, and under what conditions, to authorize such operations,” Fletcher wrote.
Fletcher and his colleague U.S. District Judge Benjamin Settle, sitting on the panel by designation from the Western District of Washington, also found the logging project did not qualify for a roadside repair and maintenance exemption under the National Environmental Policy Act. That exemption would have allowed the Forest Service to sidestep a required environmental review. The panel’s majority found the project went beyond road maintenance because it included cutting trees up to 200 feet from the road which were unlikely to pose a danger to drivers.
The ruling could have an impact on future disputes over logging projects in national forests, Voss said, including a large project being planned to remove trees damaged by the 2020 Creek Fire and Castle Fire in Sequoia National Forest.
“Last year was one of the worst fire years ever and there are forests up and down the Sierra, North Coast and Cascades where they are planning these types of projects. So I would except there to be plenty of fodder for us to see if this Ninth Circuit ruling has any teeth,” Voss said.
Voss added that commercial logging operations also contribute to climate change because carbon is released when trees are converted to lumber in sawmills or burned to create energy that powers some mills. Leaving damaged trees in the forest allows them to mostly reenter the ecosystem as soil nutrients, he argued.
“If you take out the trees, it’s going to release a lot of the CO2 into the atmosphere,” he said.
As part of the settlement entered Thursday, the U.S. Forest Service also agreed to pay Voss’ client EPIC $191,000 in legal fees.