A federal judge Tuesday threw out a U.S. Forest Service plan that calls for commercial logging in the Giant Sequoia National Monument, calling the document "incomprehensible."
The ruling from the U.S. District Court in Northern California was a victory for environmentalists in a long battle over logging groves of some of the world's most majestic trees.
President Clinton in 2000 carved a 328,000-acre monument out of the Sequoia National Forest in the southern Sierra to protect 34 groves of giant sequoias. But when the Forest Service later released a plan to manage the new monument, it called for commercial logging to reduce the threat of wildfire.
Environmentalists and state Atty. Gen. Bill Lockyer went to court, arguing that the Forest Service was flouting the Clinton protections.
In Tuesday's decision, U.S. District Judge Charles R. Breyer did not rule on that claim. But he said the Forest Service needed to draw up a new monument plan because its initial effort was so muddled that it violated the National Environmental Policy Act.
Breyer complained of a "convoluted overlay" of analyses and said the monument blueprint lacked "coherent or clear guidance" for forest managers.
Forest Service spokesman Matt Mathes said agency officials were disappointed by the ruling but did not know whether they would appeal. "We put a tremendous amount of time and effort into this plan," Mathes said. "We will talk to our attorneys and the U.S. Department of Justice to see what our next step will be."
Pat Gallagher, legal director for the Sierra Club, one of the plaintiffs in the case, said the decision should force the Forest Service to come up with a management scheme more in keeping with monument protections.
"The Forest Service really needs to respect the values for which the monument was created, and I don't think they're going to get away with anything that doesn't respect those values," Gallagher said.
Although Clinton's monument proclamation bans commercial logging, the Forest Service plan allows for enough timber cutting to fill more than 2,000 logging trucks a year. Trees, including sequoias up to 30 inches in diameter, could be logged.
The Forest Service insists the timber cutting is necessary to improve the ecological health of the groves, which have grown too thick under the government's century-long policy of stopping wildfires that have historically maintained clearings in the groves. Conservationists say the agency should thin the groves by setting controlled fires, as is done in the neighboring Sequoia National Park.
Clinton's proclamation did allow timber sales to proceed if they were approved before the monument was created. But in a second, related ruling Tuesday, Breyer blocked several of those sales. The judge found that the Forest Service had failed to adequately consider new information about how the logging would affect the dwindling southern Sierra population of the Pacific fisher, a cat-sized animal that in 2004 became a candidate for listing under the Endangered Species Act.
Breyer's opinion was the latest in a series of court rulings across the country that have concluded that Forest Service logging projects have violated environmental laws. There have been eight such decisions since 2002, according to a recent federal appeals opinion. Breyer wrote that, as in those cases, the Sequoia sales suggested "the Forest Service's interest in harvesting timber has trampled the applicable environmental laws."
But Breyer's injunction clashes with a House bill introduced last month by Rep. Devin Nunes (R-Visalia). The legislation would allow the Forest Service to go ahead with any timber sales in the Sequoia National Monument approved before 2000.
"I'm hoping it has a chilling effect on the legislation," Rachel Fazio, a plaintiff co-counsel in the case, said of Tuesday's decision.