Six Reasons Why We Challenged the Stanislaus National Forest in Court

“These forests were all different but, in one critical sense, they were all the same. They belonged to me, to my children, and to all the American people for today, tomorrow, and forever – unless somehow, we allow this incredible birthright to be stolen or frittered away.”
– Jack Ward Thomas, Chief Emeritus of the US Forest Service, referring to our national forests.

In the spirit of the above quote, we filed suit with our partners (The John Muir Project and The Center for Biological Diversity) on September 4, 2014, asking the court to reduce the scope of the Stanislaus National Forest’s plan to log 32,000 acres of fragile, post-fire forest created by the 2013 Rim Fire.

We do this with regret because we have really been impressed with the US Forest Service’s new efforts to focus on ecological restoration, the recognition of shrubland habitats, and their plans to account for the impacts of climate change on California’s ecosystems. However, it is our opinion that management on the Stanislaus National Forest has yet to come on board with the new approach. We provided extensive input to help the Stanislaus understand why their post-fire logging plan was unsound, but they ignored us – hence, our lawsuit.

Here are our 6 reasons for filing:

1. To Protect One of the Rarest, Most Fragile Habitats on Earth
One of the most damaging practices in forestry is logging a burned forest. The science is clear on this point. Thrashing through the fragile, post-fire environment with heavy logging equipment, dragging felled logs across delicate soils, and leaving behind a wasteland of broken limbs and crushed wildflower, shrub, and tree seedlings crucial to forest recovery is an ecological disaster. Yet the Stanislaus National Forest claims such logging, “is the first step in the process of long-term forest recovery” in its logging plan. Few statements could be further from the truth.

2. To Save Rare and Sensitive Species
A beautiful array of plant and animal species, including an interesting assortment of insects, only exist in severely burned forests. The Stanislaus National Forest plans to log within ALL 37 occupied spotted owl territories. Current science shows that post-fire logging of severely burned forest causes owls to avoid such areas and results in the abandonment of their territories. This makes the owls vulnerable to starvation and predation by other raptors as they move elsewhere. The Black-back woodpecker depends on burned snags (dead trees) for foraging insects (one woodpecker eats about 13,500 beetle larvae per year) and for nesting cavities. In fact, the black-back woodpecker is so tied to severely burned forests, it is considered a fire-dependent species. These creatures represent just the tip of the ice-berg in terms of the wonderful diversity of life that exists because of the habitat created in a severely burned forest.

3. To Counter the “Demon Brush” Mantra
We reject the “demon brush” mantra that many foresters promote. One of the fundamental commercial forestry myths supporting the Rim Fire logging project is that the natural process of succession will only result in endless miles of “worthless brush” (i.e. montane chaparral within which native plant species such as manzanita and ceanothus create rich, pioneer habitats). The myth also promotes the false notion that these “demon shrubs” will actually prevent the return of the forest. As a consequence, we are told, humans must enter the burned landscape, remove the dead trees, use fire and herbicides to suppress the “brush,” and replant conifers (i.e. commercially valuable timber). The truth is that tree regeneration will happen, even after a severe fire, but not at the pace that tree farmers would like.

4. To Save Taxpayer Dollars
A point every taxpayer should be outraged over is that the post-fire logging project is a money loser. When considering all the costs involved, including support infrastructure and staff time, it has been estimated that the Rim Fire post-fire logging project will cost taxpayers at least $15 million. The fact that logging representatives have expressed deep satisfaction with the project should raise more than just a few red flags.

5. To Support the US Forest Service’s New Focus on Ecological Restoration
To its credit, Region 5 (California) of the Forest Service has recognized the importance of ecological restoration in its 2011 Leadership Intent Statement and is incorporating the latest science to guide its management decisions. The Stanislaus National Forest is violating the Forest Service’s new direction and is ignoring the science that clearly demonstrates that post-fire logging compromises the ecological restoration process in forests.

6. Post-fire Logging Can and Should be Banned on National Forest Lands
It’s time for a change in how the Forest Service administers its mandate under the Multiple-Use Sustained-Yield Act of 1960.* In consideration of what the Act actually says, post-fire logging can and should be banned in national forests.

– Post-fire logging does not, “best meet the needs of the American people…” because there is a growing need for habitat and wildland preservation.
– Considering the new and overwhelming scientific evidence that post-fire logging is ecologically damaging, post-fire logging should be banned because the Act requires “adjustments in use to conform to changing needs and conditions…”
– Whatever financial gain is obtained, if any, from post-fire logging can be disregarded because consideration can be given to the relative values of resources (habitat over post-fire logging), “and not necessarily the combination of uses that will give the greatest dollar return.”

*As per the Multiple-Use Sustained-Yield Act of 1960, “Multiple use” means: The management of all the various renewable surface resources of the national forests so that they are utilized in the combination that will best meet the needs of the American people; making the most judicious use of the land for some or all of these resources or related services over areas large enough to provide sufficient latitude for periodic adjustments in use to conform to changing needs and conditions; that some land will be used for less than all of the resources; and harmonious and coordinated management of the various resources, each with the other, without impairment of the productivity of the land, with consideration being given to the relative values of the various resources, and not necessarily the combination of uses that will give the greatest dollar return or the greatest unit output.

What is Being Logged

Although some have supported the Stanislaus National Forest post-fire logging project as a reasonable compromise because only 6% of the burned area is being logged, the total percentage is not the point. It is what is being logged that’s the critical issue: 50 to 75% of the rare post-fire, complex early seral forest habitat (CESF) created by the Rim Fire in the Stanislaus will be destroyed by logging.

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More details about why post-fire forests are so fragile and should be left alone, please see this document: Nourished by Fire

The reason given by the Forest Service for not logging more is because there is not enough lumber mill capacity to handle additional timber, not because of an in-depth understanding of ecology.

The stats: Of the total area burned (257,000 acres), approximately 60% (153,000 acres) was in conifer forest. Of that, 33% burned at high intensity. This created more than 26,000 acres of rare CESF in the Stanislaus National Forest. The plan is to log 32,000 acres of burned forest, of which 17,000 acres are along roads (many closed to the public) and 15,000 acres in the backcountry.

About Suing

One of the most precious rights we have as Americans is to be able to demand, through the courts, that our government follow the law. Although a lot of rhetoric is tossed around about how “environmentalists” (citizens) are to blame for everything from massive fires to economic depression because of lawsuits, the reality is that such lawsuits have been responsible for protecting our nation from the abuse of selfish interests.

The National Environmental Protection Act, the Endangered Species Act, and many state laws (such as California’s Environmental Quality Act – CEQA), give citizens legal standing in court to challenge environmentally destructive projects and policies. Without such standing, citizens would be denied the right to protect their own health and the health of the environment around them.

We’ve lived through times when corporations were allowed to poison the air, government agencies were granted the authority to dam every river (including the Grand Canyon), and entire landscapes were stripped to bare dirt by mining and timber companies. While environmental damage continues to occur, the difference now is that citizens have the tools to stop a significant amount of it if, and only if, they accept their responsibility pay attention. Citizens need to keep an eye on their government and the corporations that seek to profit at their expense, and act when need be. That action typically means going to court.

Violation of Citizen Rights and the Freedom of Information Act

While citizens have the right to know what their government is doing and have the right to go to court to stop environmentally damaging projects, it doesn’t mean it is easy to do so.

We have filed a Freedom of Information Act request of the US Forest Service on December 24, 2013, to learn how forest management actions may have contributed to the Rim Fire. At first, the Stanislaus National Forest tried to charge us $8,000 for the requested records. Then they claimed they didn’t have the records after we filed a fee waiver. We filed a formal objection to the decision. Our objection is currently sitting in the Washington, D.C. office. We continue to wait.

During our preliminary survey in May of this year, we found significant regeneration of conifers in severely burned areas of the Rim Fire (we reported those findings here). However, the Stanislaus has claimed there is little or no conifer regeneration within these areas. This past month the Stanislaus refused to allow us to conduct additional surveys prior to the post-fire logging operation. After being pressured, forest management relented, but indicated we would be monitored by staff and likely videotaped.

Stay tuned. More to come.