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Environmentalist lawsuit targets post-fire tree removal

An environmental group claims the U.S. Forest Service unlawfully approved the removal of hazard trees burned last year in the Rogue River-Siskiyou National Forest.

The Klamath Forest Alliance has filed a lawsuit accusing the agency of improperly “categorically excluding” the Slater Fire Safe Re-entry Project from environmental analysis.

The complaint alleges that logging trees along 146 miles of roadsides without an “environmental assessment” or a more rigorous “environmental impact statement” violates the National Environmental Policy Act.

The project is expected to generate about 30 million board-feet of timber — enough to fill 6,000 logging trucks — which is larger than intended for a “categorical exclusion” based on “repair and maintenance,” the plaintiff said.

“The Forest Service has failed to articulate a rational explanation as to why such a major ‘salvage’ logging project constitutes ‘road repair and maintenance’ such that the Forest Service may avoid preparation of an EIS or even an EA,” according to the complaint.

The Slater Fire erupted in September 2020 and spread over 157,000 acres, including about 65,000 acres in the national forest, whose nearly 1.8 million acres straddles the Oregon-California border.

The project authorizes removing trees that are not only dead, but those which have a potential to fall onto roads within five years, the complaint said. Under the standards used by the Forest Service, “many trees that the project authorizes for felling pose no immediate hazard.”

More recent guidelines for assessing post-fire tree status also predict fewer trees will die based on crown scorch than the standards applied by the agency, the plaintiff claims.

Most of the damaged trees in the project area will be removed, eliminating more than 1,000 acres of post-fire snag habitat for the threatened northern spotted owl and disturbing the ecosystem more severely than leaving the logs in place, the complaint said.

Even though the Forest Service acknowledges the treatment is “likely to adversely affect” the spotted owl, it hasn’t consulted with other agencies on the impacts, as required under the Endangered Species Act, according to the plaintiffs.

The project also authorizes logging more than 2,000 acres of “late succession reserves” that would normally be protected under the Northwest Forest Plan, the complaint said. The ecological role of dead and dying trees must be considered in such reserves.

Klamath Forest Alliance alleges that “categorical exclusions” do not apply to “a commercial logging project of this scale, involving the removal of tens of thousands of trees.” The adverse effect on spotted owls is an “extraordinary circumstance” that warrants environmental analysis, the plaintiff said.

The Forest Service failed to explain how logging in late successional reserves is consistent with the National Forest Management Act, the complaint said. The plaintiff may also pursue an Endangered Species Act claim after the required 60-day notice period.

The plaintiff has asked a federal judge to overturn the project’s approval and prohibit its implementation until the Forest Service has proven it complies with environmental laws.

A representative of the Forest Service said the agency doesn’t discuss pending litigation.

In a decision memorandum, the Forest Service said the project was necessary to abate hazards from frequently traveled routes through the forest.

The project aims to remove trees that may eventually become dangerous to avoid multiple entries into fire-damaged areas, the agency said. Seed trees will be left standing in these areas to provide natural forest regeneration.

The “categorical exclusion” for the project is permitted as a post-fire rehabilitation activity up to 4,200 acres and was recommended by an interdisciplinary team of resource specialists, the agency said.


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