WASHINGTON / SACRAMENTO, CA - August 23 - Judge Morrison England, Jr., a President George W. Bush appointee, has invalidated a timber sale in a federal roadless area on the grounds that the logging operation would create a serious fire hazard. The Bush administration had tried to justify the logging in a remote part of the Tahoe National Forest in California under the guise of fire prevention.
"This case is a disturbing example of how the Bush administrations close industry ties seriously cloud its judgment and put people in harms way," said Aaron Isherwood, Sierra Club attorney. "Its unconscionable that the Bush administration is claiming to help communities while actually putting them at risk."
The decision marks the first time a federal judge has invalidated a logging operation because it violates the Roadless Area Conservation Rule. The Bush administration had tried to sell the logging operation as a fire prevention project in order to excuse the Forest Service from having to comply with roadless area protections. The Red Star case fits a broader pattern of Bush administration officials exploiting legitimate concerns about wildfires to give timber companies greater access to roadless and old growth forest areas.
Chief among the concerns about this sale was the amount of highly combustible "slash" debris that would be left behind after the timber sale. In explaining his decision, Judge England wrote: "Even the Forest Service's own studies indicate that over thirty to forty tons of small diameter fuel on the forest floor create 'extreme fire hazard' as well as extreme resistance to control once a fire actually starts. By Defendants' own estimate, as much as 85 tons of flammable surface fuel, or more than twice that amount, will be present after the logging proposed by the Red Star Project has been completed."
Judge England concluded, "To the extent that Defendants have demonstrated that implementation of the Red Star Project may increase likelihood of severe fire, such an increased risk is clearly not in the public interest."
Similarly, the Forest Services own fire scientists argue that the best way to protect communities from fire is to reduce fuel loads within 500 yards of where people live, in what some refer to as the Community Protection Zone. The main thrust of the Bush administrations wildfire policy is to accelerate logging projects like the Red Star sale, deep in the backcountry, where there are not many people but where there is profitable timber. It also provides virtually no funding for fuel reduction on non-federal lands.
The Bush administration proposed the Red Star sale in Duncan Canyon, which contains one of the two largest, unfragmented groves of old-growth forest in the Tahoe National Forest. Nearly all other mid-Sierra forests in this 5,000 to 7,000-foot elevation range have been severely impacted over the last 150 years. Senator Barbara Boxer has proposed permanent protection for Duncan Canyon on the basis of its extraordinary wilderness characteristics.
The Sierra Club and the John Muir Project filed the suit on behalf of themselves as well as the Sierra Nevada Forest Protection Campaign, Sierra Foothills Audubon, the Forest Issues Group, the Center for Biological Diversity and a citizen plaintiff named James Woods.
"The Bush administration has made a habit of saying one thing and doing something else," added Isherwood. "Today, the truth caught up with them."