Friday, December 21, 2007

Court decision affects National Forests

unedited from 12-07 Tahoe Mt. News

By Kathryn Reed

How the U.S. Forest Service manages its land in the future will change drastically because of a Dec. 5 federal appellate court ruling.
The Sierra Club and Sierra Forest Legacy challenged the policy allowing up to 1,000 acres to be logged without environmental review. The original intent was for the Forest Service to thin acreage. The reality, according to the plaintiffs, is the feds desecrated large swaths of land by logging, not thinning.
A side effect to the three-judge decision to overturn part of President George Bush’s Healthy Forests Initiative is the National Environmental Policy Act must be used when it comes to thinning National Forest land around the wildland urban interface.
It is too soon to know how the Forest Service will rid land of hazardous fuels. The local office deferred calls to its Washington headquarters. No one returned calls as of press time. The Forest Service could appeal the decision or ask for a review of the entire 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.
The local Forest Service office has said thinning projects in the Angora Fire burn area helped the nearly 3,100-acre blaze not be worse than it was.
Craig Thomas, executive director with the Sierra Forest Legacy, does not anticipate the ruling impacting the Lake Tahoe Basin. He said the South Shore project that will treat 12,000 acres is already undergoing a more rigorous environmental review.
As for the controlled burn issue, he said that will be examined after the first of the year when the litigating parties return to U.S. District Court to discuss remedies.
“I’m still reviewing what the decision might mean. I doubt prescribed burning, especially in projects around Tahoe, will be prohibited,” said Michael Donahoe, conservation co-chair of the Tahoe Area Sierra Club. “The Forest Service has been good about doing the proper environmental review up here any way. I don’t think this will slow fire prevention practices in the basin or anywhere in West.”
El Dorado County Supervisor Norma Santiago is thrilled with the decision.
“It has been a long standing problem these burn piles in terms of (their) effectiveness and the risk of air quality as a result of these burn piles. There is the issue of them just sitting there year after year before they are actually burned,” Santiago said.
She is concerned the bureaucratic nature of the Forest Service could delay the thinning process even more. She is hopeful biomass facilities and other alternatives to controlled burns will now come to the forefront.
“The court decision could potentially make a big difference in our overall fuels reduction planning for Lake Tahoe. Prescribed burnings are one of several tools available that the Forest Service relies heavily upon. We will certainly want to see what sort of implication this will have long term,” said Julie Regan, Tahoe Regional Planning Agency spokeswoman.
In the 2007 fiscal year, the Forest Service spent $100 million on firefighting than was budgeted. Agency Chief Gail Kimbell was before House Committee on Global Warming this fall saying she expects to take about $300 million from the recreation and other departments to supplement the next firefighting budget.
The death and destruction from this year’s California fires point to the need to thin National Forests. Even though a bi-state commission has been impaneled to address the local fuel reduction needs and will meet Dec. 13-14 on the South Shore, no one from the offices of Govs. Arnold Schwarzenegger or Jim Gibbons spoke to the Tahoe Mountain News.

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