Center for Biological Diversity

Protecting endangered species and wild places through
science, policy, education, and environmental law.

December 12, 2003


CONTACT: Rachel Fazio, John Muir Project (530) 273-9290
Monica Bond, Center for Biological Diversity (909) 659-6053 x304
More Information: Ancient Forests, Fire and Forest Health


San Francisco - The Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals overturned a district judge’s denial of preliminary injunction yesterday on a massive, post-fire logging project near Lake Tahoe on the Eldorado National Forest. The Ninth Circuit found that the logging project likely violated federal environmental law and would harm imperiled wildlife. The court ruled that the Forest Service likely violated the Sierra Framework and the National Environmental Policy Act in approving logging in occupied California spotted owl habitat. The 1,700-acre logging proposal would have cut thousands of large green trees under the pretext of restoration after fire.

The Star fire of 2001 burned through about 16,800 acres in the Tahoe and Eldorado National Forests and on private timberlands. Despite the fact that much of the forest burned only lightly and many living trees remained, the Forest Service proposed the "Star Fire" project to log the entire area. The John Muir Project of Earth Island Institute and the Center for Biological Diversity filed a lawsuit, arguing that the Forest Service's logging project would harm the California spotted owl, a declining species that depends on older trees for nesting. The plaintiffs’ site inspections of the area showed that much of the forest was green and alive, contrary to Forest Service assertions. The Ninth Circuit's opinion agreed with plaintiffs that the continued presence of owls after the fire, and plaintiffs’ evidence about numerous green stands ignored by the government, undermined the agency’s claim that such areas are no longer suitable habitat.

"This ruling is a strong signal to the U.S. Forest Service that they cannot continue to misrepresent conditions on the ground in order to justify logging," said attorney Rachel Fazio of the John Muir Project, who represented the plaintiffs.

Research on spotted owls shows that the birds do not necessarily abandon an area after a wildfire. Monica Bond, biologist with the Center for Biological Diversity and lead author on a study of the impacts of wildfire on spotted owls, noted that "spotted owls have more to fear from the Forest Service than from forest fires."

The court also ruled that the Forest Service failed to adequately analyze the cumulative impacts of multiple logging projects in the Sierra Nevada. The national forests in the Sierra Nevada are currently managed under the Sierra Framework, a comprehensive management and restoration plan approved in early 2001. The Bush Administration has recently proposed to gut the Framework and allow more logging of large, old trees.

MYTH: Logging large trees will help reduce wildfire risk.

FACT: Not one single scientific study exists that concludes that large trees must be removed as a fire prevention measure. Every study addressing this issue actually recommends the retention of large living and dead trees because they shade and cool the forest floor and reduce flammable undergrowth, they are critical habitat elements for wildlife, and their contribution to the fire hazard is insignificant relative to smaller fuels such as branches, twigs, brush and little trees.

The National Fire Plan states "the removal of large, merchantable trees from forests does not reduce fire risk and may, in fact, increase such risk. Fire ecologists note that large trees are 'insurance for the future - they are critical to ecosystem resilience.' Targeting smaller trees and leaving both the large trees and snags standing addresses the core of the fuels problem."

MYTH: Wildfire results in the loss of California spotted owls from an area.

FACT: Results from numerous scientific studies show that spotted owls can continue to occupy and reproduce in habitat burned by wildfire. While research on long-term impacts is needed, a recently published study on immediate effects of wildfires on spotted owls found that "relatively large wildfires that burned nest and roost areas appeared to have little short-term effect on survival, site fidelity, mate fidelity, and reproductive success of spotted owls..." In fact, the Forest Service assumed a spotted owl territory that burned in the Star Fire was no longer suitable habitat even though a pair of owls was located in the burned forest the spring after the fire


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