Forest Service: Rule saved thousands of homes in California fires; Cox calls 9th Circuit ruling a ‘set-back’
WASHINGTON (AP) ” A Bush administration rule that allowed expedited logging on national forests saved thousands of homes during the recent wildfires in California, Forest Service Chief Gail Kimbell said today.
Kimbell cited “some real vivid examples” in California where the Forest Service practice of logging without first analyzing its effect on the environment saved homes and lives.
“The hazardous fuels treatments were instrumental saving thousands of homes” in southern California during recent wildfires near San Diego and Lake Arrowhead, Kimbell said.
The San Francisco-based 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals blocked the practice Wednesday, saying it violated the National Environmental Policy Act. Kimbell said the administration was considering whether to appeal.
The rule allowing expedited logging was “not a blanket to go through all of California” to thin forests, Kimbell said. “We are very specific where we do it.”
While the 2003 rule allows logging of up to 1,000 acres without environmental review, most projects are closer to 40 or 50 acres, Kimbell said. “It’s surgically selected” in areas with low environmental risk, she said.
The 2003 rule was billed as a way to reduce wildfires as part of the Bush administration’s “Healthy Forests Initiative.” It exempted from environmental review logging projects up to 1,000 acres prescribed forest burns up to 4,500 acres.
In a press statement State Sen. Dave Cox said he was disappointed with the ruling, noting the devastating Angora fire in June, which destroyed more than 250 homes and burned 3,072 acres in South Lake Tahoe. Sen. Cox’s California District 1 includes all of Lake Tahoe and the counties of Alpine, Amador, Calaveras, El Dorado, Lassen, Modoc, Mono, Plumas and Sierra, as well as portions of Nevada, Placer and Sacramento counties.
Cox said the decision puts special interests before the safety of residents who live in and around forest/urban interface.
“People who live near the forest love the land and want to protect its natural resources just as much as the environmental groups, but they also want their community to be fire safe for their families,” Cox said. “The 9th Circuit’s decision is extremely frustrating as it did not take into consideration the fire safety needs to reduce the risk of wildfires near homes.”
In its opinion Wednesday, the three-judge appeals court panel said the Forest Service had failed to properly analyze the rule, causing “irreparable injury” by allowing more than 1.2 million acres of national forest land to be logged and burned each year without studying the ecological impacts.
The justices ruled that the Forest Service can no longer exempt such projects from environmental analysis until the rule itself can be properly analyzed.
The ruling sided with the Sierra Club and Sierra Nevada Forest Protection Campaign.
Cox said the ruling is a “set-back” for California.
“This year alone, wildfires have destroyed thousands of homes and displaced hundreds of thousands of residents. Forest thinning and the creation of defensible space are common sense methods to prevent fires and protect lives of those living in fire-prone national forests,” Cox said. “It is my hope that the U.S. Attorney’s office acting on behalf of the U.S. Forest Service will take further action and appeal the case to the U.S. Supreme Court.”
Rep. Darrell Issa, R-Calif., called the decision an assault on common sense and reason.
“The court’s overzealous interpretation of environmental regulation is placing lives and personal property in danger,” said Issa, adding that the appeals court “placed greater weight on the concerns of a special interest group than the lives and welfare of Americans threatened by wildfires.”
The case is Sierra Club v. Bosworth, 05-16989.
” The Tahoe Daily Tribune contributed to this story