by Tom Wheeler, Executive Director of EPIC
Illegal “Crawford” Old-Growth Timber Sale Withdrawn
In the face of litigation brought by EPIC, the Klamath Forest Alliance and the Klamath-Siskiyou Wildlands Center, the Klamath National Forest has withdrawn its approval of a timber sale that threatened old-growth forests in the cold water tributaries of the Klamath River. The “Crawford” timber sale would have removed large-diameter thick-barked old-growth trees that are resilient to fire, provide crucial wildlife habitat, and regulate streamflow and temperature of mountain streams that are critical to the health of the Klamath River. EPIC filed suit in April in the Eastern District Court of California alleging that the timber sale violated the National Environmental Policy Act and the National Forest Management Act.
“It is time that the Forest Service work with communities and stakeholders to restore forests, protect homes and communities and safeguard watersheds,” said Tom Wheeler, Executive Director at EPIC. “The Crawford timber sale could and should be changed to thin existing timber plantations while utilizing prescribed fire to restore these forests from past mismanagement.”
The Crawford Creek watersheds, located between the Siskiyou and Marble Mountain Wilderness Areas, are a stronghold of low elevation temperate rainforest. The area provides vital habitat connectivity for wildlife and serves as a corridor for animals dependent on mature intact forests, like the pacific fisher and northern goshawk. For species adapting to and surviving the climate and biodiversity crisis, these closed-canopy virgin forests provide much needed refuge.
“We are relieved to know that two of the only remaining reproductive northern spotted owl pairs on the Klamath National Forest will keep their habitat,” said Kimberly Baker, KFA’s Executive Director and EPIC’s Public Lands Advocate. “This species is so close to extinction, protecting reproducing pairs must be a priority. And, in this day and age, ancient and mature forests should remain standing. They are our first line of defense in guarding against global warming.”
While the Forest Service has withdrawn its approval of the project, it is not immediately clear what will become of it. The agency may attempt to cure the deficiencies outlined in litigation and repackage the timber sale. However, the conservation community wants to see the Forest Service stick to non-controversial work that will help protect communities while respecting the old-growth watersheds of the Mid-Klamath basin.
Meriel Darzen and Oliver Stiefel of the Crag Law Center represented the conservation groups in their litigation.
EPIC Win For Mendocino National Forest at the Ninth Circuit
In a major victory, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals has sided with EPIC in a case impacting the Mendocino National Forest. The court found that the Forest Service’s use of a “categorical exclusion” to avoid an environmental impact assessment for a timber sale following the 2018 Ranch Fire was likely a violation of the law and that EPIC should have been awarded an injunction by the lower court to stop logging.
In 2018, the Ranch Fire burnt a significant portion of the Mendocino National Forest. In response, the Forest Service authorized a series of commercial timber sales near roads within the forest. To avoid environmental review required by NEPA, the Mendocino National Forest attempted to shove these timber sales under a “categorical exclusion” to the ordinary requirements to prepare a document. Although a categorical exclusion for post-fire timber operations existed, the Forest Service did not employ this exclusion because they would be limited in the total acreage they could log. Instead, the Forest Service employed a different, ill-fitting categorical exclusion that allowed for “[r]epair and maintenance of road” including “[p]runing vegetation” to authorize these timber sales.
EPIC challenged this project and sought an injunction to ongoing timber operations. The Northern District of California denied EPIC’s injunction and we appealed (with an oral argument by Zoom and livestreamed to Youtube) to the Ninth Circuit. Ultimately, the Ninth Circuit sided with EPIC, with a 2-1 decision finding that EPIC should have been awarded its injunction. The Court ultimately found that “Under no reasonable interpretation of its language does the Project come within the [categorical exclusion] for ‘repair and maintenance’ of roads.”
With simple math, the Ninth Circuit exposed the pretextual nature of the Forest Service’s use of the categorical exclusion. In many areas, the court noted, the average tree height was only 100 feet, yet the National Forest established a one-size-fits-all prescription allowing for the logging up to 200 feet on either side of the road, and thus the project would allow targeting trees that posed no risk to road users.
This ruling has big implications for our National Forests moving forward. Under the Trump Administration, EPIC has seen a widespread abuse of the rejected faulty logic to log without environmental review or public participation.
What’s next? The case is remanded back to the Northern District Court for further proceedings consistent with the Ninth Circuit’s decision. We will update you when we know more.