The U.S. Forest Service has agreed to hold off on a fuels reduction project near Upper Echo Lake this year, as part of ongoing litigation that, until recently, accused the agency’s tree thinning operations of threatening a protected animal species.
Land under the Upper Echo Lakes Hazardous Fuels Reduction Project is being considered as a designated critical habitat for the Sierra Nevada yellow-legged frog, an animal that was recently placed on the endangered species list in April.
If the agency was to continue removing or burning trees and brush at the lake — a region the plaintiff says doesn’t need it — the work could further “result in harmful effects on ecological and historical resources,” according to the lawsuit.
“At a minimum, the Forest Service should have conducted surveys of the project area to determine whether its activities would harm the species and its habitat,” said plaintiff Dr. Dennis Murphy, a Pew Scholar in conservation and the environment and research professor in biology at the University of Nevada, Reno, “but instead the agency put on blinders to the impacts of the project hoping no one would notice.”
In a stipulation signed by Senior U.S. District Judge Garland Burrell, Jr., on Wednesday, the Forest Service agreed to consult with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service regarding potential impacts to the frogs.
It has also committed to take no further on-the-ground action on the project through 2014 or resume activities before the consultation with the wildlife service is complete.
The Forest Service was reached by phone Friday, but declined to comment on the case.
“Once the matter is in the courts, we let the legal process unwind,” spokeswoman Cheva Gabor said.
Following the Forest Service’s cooperation, Murphy, in a separate stipulation filed Friday, dismissed the claims that the agency violated the Endangered Species Act. His attorney, Paul Weiland, said he was pleased with the outcome.
“Certainly it is welcome news that they were able to stop the project and address the issues with the project impacts with the Fish and Wildlife Service,” Weiland said.
However, Murphy’s claim that the Forest Service violated the National Environmental Policy Act still stands in the lawsuit.
Murphy says the Echo Lake fuel reduction project, which is intended to decrease fire risk on forest land near the lake, violated NEPA by moving ahead without preparing a proper environmental impact statement or environmental assessment.
The Forest Service worked on the project for several weeks in fall 2013. Work was about 40 percent done when the government shutdown halted progress.
Murphy, whose family has owned a seasonal residence on Upper Echo Lake for more than 80 years, filed the lawsuit in November.
“The Project area is littered with dozens of slash piles, many that are in or adjacent to wetland, including ephemeral streams, meadows and seasonal ponds,” Murphy said in a statement. “The Forest Service has abrogated its duty (to) analyze the deleterious environmental impacts of the Project under the National Environmental Policy Act.”
Weiland believes attorneys with the Forest Service will file a motion to dismiss the NEPA claims on Monday. But the federal agency said it could “neither confirm nor deny” those assumptions.
If that is the case, however, Murphy said he and Weiland are prepared to file a response.
“In plain English, the Forest Service has a lot of fuel reduction work they could be doing in the basin, but it doesn’t need to be done here,” he said.