(CN) – Negligent logging work that has damaged a spiritual Native American trail gave environmentalists and one tribe enough ammunition to halt a wildfire-suppression project in northwest California, a federal judge ruled.
The U.S. Forest Service, named as a defendant along with Six Rivers National Forest supervisor Tyrone Kelley, launched the Orleans Community Fuels Reduction and Forest Health Project five years ago near wildfire-prone Orleans in Humboldt County. The project, supported by the Healthy Forest Restoration Act, aimed to thin, prune, hand-pile and burn about 2,700 acres of Six Rivers’ forest for overall forest health and fire suppression.
The Karuk Tribe, Klamath-Siskiyou Wildlands Center, Environmental Protection Information Center and Klamath Forest Alliance filed suit, claiming that the agency, specifically the logging work of Timber Products, violated the National Historic Preservation Act.
Portions of the Orleans project overlapped the Panamnik World Renewal Ceremonial District, which was nominated for National Register of Historic Places in 1978. The Karuk’s spiritual Medicine Man Trail spans the district, and about half of it fell within treatment units of the Orleans project.
Timber Products, whether through miscommunication with the defendants or on its own accord, damaged the trail during clearing work.
After acknowledging the damages and the plaintiffs’ expressed dissatisfaction with the work, the Forest Service voluntarily suspended the project in 2009. The agency “found that the Medicine Man Trail and some of the surrounding trees had been damaged by logging equipment, and that downed materials had been piled in the vicinity,” according to a ruling by U.S. District Judge William Alsup.
Although the Forest Service had consulted Karuk spiritual practitioners during the planning phases of the project, and did not plan to impact the Medicine Man Trail, the plaintiffs cited damage there as well as to “other Karuk cultural resources and various aspects of the natural environment in the Six Rivers National Forest.”
“Without determining whether sloppiness, poor decision-making, or improper motivations might explain the communication failure, this order finds that the set of communication methods adopted by defendants was not adequate to inform Timber Products that certain preventative mitigation measures were imperative,” Alsup wrote. “This failure to follow through constitutes a violation of defendants’ … responsibility [under the National Historic Preservation Act] to evaluate and mitigate potential adverse impacts.”
The plaintiffs initially alleged seven claims for relief: two counts for violation of the Healthy Forest Restoration Act, four counts for violation of the National Environmental Policy Act and one count for violation of the National Historic Preservation Act.
They withdrew the Healthy Forest Restoration Act claims, and Alsup dismissed all but the National Historic Preservation Act allegation.
“In light of the finding that defendants violated the National Historic Preservation Act, defendants are hereby enjoined from conducting further implementation of the Orleans Community Fuels Reduction and Forest Health Project until appropriate remedial measures are established to bring the project into compliance,” Alsup ruled.
The defendants have until Aug. 1 to submit plans to remedy the damages.