A federal judge has temporarily halted a proposed logging operation in a small roadless section of the Sierra Nevada after concluding that the U.S. Forest Service project intended to reduce the wildfire hazard could actually increase the fire risk.
In an order handed down late Tuesday after a Sacramento hearing, U.S. District Judge Morrison C. England Jr. found that environmental groups challenging the sale had made a strong case that timber debris left from the project would stoke future blazes and that logging would harm wildlife habitat.
"Plaintiffs have demonstrated a likelihood of success on their claims that as trees will be cut, extreme levels of flammable slash will be generated," England stated, adding, "Wildlife habitat for sensitive species such as the California spotted owl will be threatened by future severe fire."
The proposed logging is part of a larger project that targets trees still standing after the Star Fire, which burned two years ago in parts of the El Dorado and Tahoe national forests northeast of Sacramento.
Conservation groups challenging the project have failed to stop much of it. But England's order puts a temporary hold, until a hearing later this month, on logging in a 700-acre part of the Duncan Roadless Area in the Tahoe forest.
"Anyone who was a Boy Scout for one day knows this is a problem," said Rachel Fazio, who argued the case for the John Muir Project. "You're leaving so much slash behind, you're creating an extreme fire hazard that threatens remaining adjacent unburned habitat."
Matt Mathes, a regional spokesman for the Forest Service, said the agency could not comment on the ruling because the matter remains in litigation. But he said it is the service's general policy to clean up debris after logging operations by burning it in small, controlled fires -- if weather conditions permit and there is funding for the work.
"We are extremely aware of the hazard that slash presents," Mathes said. "But these matters are going to come up later in the litigation, and I am not permitted to talk about them at this time."
Though it involves a small area, the case touches on the much larger issue of how the Bush administration is reacting to wildfire threats in the West. The administration is trying to increase logging on federal land, arguing that public forests must be thinned of dense growth that can fuel destructive wildfires.
As part of that strategy, the Forest Service has said it will allow commercial loggers to cut down some of the most commercially valuable trees to offset the cost of thinning the less valuable but highly flammable small trees and brush.
But conservation groups have accused the administration of using the wildfire threat as an excuse to take out more commercial timber and have contended that the Forest Service's fire-reduction efforts target the wrong places -- away from communities -- and the wrong-sized trees -- larger, more fire-resistant ones.
Aaron Isherwood, who argued the case for the Sierra Club, said the temporary restraining order was particularly noteworthy because it was issued by a recent appointee of President Bush.
Loggers carrying out the Star project are supposed to cut and scatter tree limbs and tops left after the operation. But on much of the project, Forest Service documents outlining the project's impact make no provision for follow-up efforts to clear the debris.