SACRAMENTO (CN) - The U.S. Forest Service must face claims that it will disrupt the northern spotted owl's habitat if it allows logging in a burned portion of the Shasta-Trinity Forest, a federal judge ruled.
More than 46,000 acres of private and public land in Northern California were burned by the Bagley Fire in August 2012. The fire began on the Shasta Lake Ranger District and spread into the McCloud Ranger District of the Shasta-Trinity National Forest.
On July 18, 2013, the Forest Service Chief granted an Emergency Situation Determination allowing immediate implementation of the Bagley Hazard Tree Abatement Project in the Shasta Lake and McCloud Ranger Districts.
The stated purpose of the logging project is to increase the safe use of the National Forest Transportation system within the burned area, retain open roads, and recover the value of wood through salvage and sale to offset the cost to the public.
But the Conservation Congress - a nonprofit wildlife advocacy organization - claims that the logging will occur in designated northern spotted owl critical habitat.
Conservation Congress sued the Forest Service and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, under the National Environmental Police Act, the National Forest Management Act, and the Endangered Species Act.
"Salvage logging, which is what logging a burned habitat is called, is not supported by any of the best available science," Denise Boggs with the Conservation Congress said in an interview with Courthouse News.
"Forests evolve with wildfires. That's how a forest cleans itself out and then regenerates on its own. When you log it, you take heavy equipment in there and it ruins the soils, causes erosion and interrupts regeneration. For that reason alone, logging is bad."
Salvage logging in this forest causes extra harm, as it will interrupt the recovery plan for the northern spotted owl, Boggs said.
"Owls not only evolved with fire, but they show a preference for foraging, which means feeding, in highly burned areas. Science shows owls will do OK with fire, but if you go in and log the area, they will lose habitat. They won't use those logging areas because they are vulnerable to predators and they need certain specific types of habitat in order to survive," Boggs said.
She questioned whether the Forest Service was being genuine by calling the post-fire operations a safety issue.
Boggs said that a passenger car would not be able to fit on the roads in the area and there are some areas that have no roads at all, so there is no actual threat to public safety.
"This critical habitat was set aside for the owl. There are other areas set aside for logging. That's why we filed the lawsuit," Boggs said.
The Forest Service tried to get the suit thrown out, arguing that the Conservation's claims are barred because the organization did not exhaust its administrative remedies by failing to appeal the decision to allow the logging project.
However, because the Forest Service granted an Emergency Situation Determination allowing the logging to start immediately, the Conservation Congress was deprived of the opportunity to appeal, U.S. District Judge Troy Nunley wrote in denying the Forest Service's motion to dismiss on Wednesday.
Boggs said the case law on the issue is perfectly clear and in their favor.
"We, of course, are very pleased with the outcome and believe Judge Nunley did a great job," Boggs said.
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