Lawsuits from environmental groups are snagging badly needed efforts to log forests in California’s fire-prone Sierra Nevada mountains, lawmakers and witnesses told a House of Representatives subcommittee Thursday.
Accompanied by stark photographs of forests ravaged by the 2013 Yosemite-area Rim Fire, Randy Hanvelt, a Tuolumne County, Calif., supervisor, urged action to speed both salvage and green-tree harvests on Forest Service lands as a way to reduce potential fuel for forest fires.
“Where I come from, I think the process is broken,” Hanvelt said. “I worry about the problem with litigation.”
Hanvelt’s testimony found a sympathetic audience at the House Subcommittee on Federal Lands, where the chairman, Rep. Tom McClintock, R-Calif., and other Republicans regularly denounce environmental groups. It also came at a potentially key time for the Rim Fire cleanup.
The largest fire ever recorded in the Sierra Nevada, the Rim Fire that began in August 2013, ultimately burned 402 square miles, spanning parts of Yosemite National Park, private lands and the Stanislaus National Forest. In September 2014, the Forest Service proposed a plan to allow logging on 52 square miles of the affected wildlands.
The Center for Biological Diversity and several other environmental groups subsequently sued to stop the Rim Fire plan.
“This timber sale will be incredibly destructive,” the Center for Biological Diversity’s public lands director, Randi Spivak, said last year. “It’s little more than an excuse to cut old trees in forests that would otherwise be protected.”
On Monday, a three-judge panel of the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals heard oral argument in the Rim Fire case, after a trial judge rejected the environmentalists’ request for a preliminary injunction. The appellate decision is now pending from the two Democratic and one Republican appointees who heard the case.
“There is no doubt litigation has had a profound impact on the Forest Service,” McClintock said Thursday, adding that, “a quarter-century of extremist litigation has put our forests at risk.”
Hanvelt, in his written testimony, elaborated that even if lawsuits based on the National Environmental Policy Act or other laws ultimately fail, forest projects “can be stopped or at least delayed indefinitely while additional analyses are completed.”
The subcommittee’s ranking Democrat, Rep. Niki Tsongas of Massachusetts, countered the hearing’s GOP-dominated theme by stressing that “bedrock environmental laws are making sure our public voice is heard” in the management of federal lands.
Between 1989 and 2008, according to a study presented Thursday, 1,125 lawsuits were filed challenging Forest Service land management decisions. The agency settled about one-quarter of the cases and won nearly 54 percent of them, study co-author Robert W. Malmsheimer testified.
More than 40 percent of the cases challenged the Forest Service’s “vegetative management” decisions, meaning logging and salvage programs, and these were also the lawsuits the agency was “most likely to settle,” the analysts found.
“Legal factors are now as important as biological factors and economic factors in the management of our national forests,” said Malmsheimer, a professor at the State University of New York’s College of Environmental Science and Forestry.
During the last Congress, McClintock wrote a bill to speed the salvage logging from forests damaged during the Yosemite Rim fire. The measure passed the Republican-controlled House of Representatives on a largely party line vote but did not advance in the Senate.