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Judge rules agency should have disclosed facts about projects
|Powder Timber Sale, Photo by Kyle Haines|
The U.S. Forest Service failed to release essential information for the public to comment on regarding four proposed logging projects on the Shasta-Trinity and Lassen national forests, a federal judge has ruled.
The decision, which orders the agency to undertake new environmental reviews, means planned logging on some 20,000 acres is on hold.
When the projects first were announced, the forests sent brief letters to interested citizens or groups asking for comments, wrote U.S. District Judge David F. Levi.
But those two- to three-page letters ignored key issues that later would be explained in environmental assessments, he wrote. And those assessments were released only after final decisions had been made to go ahead with the logging.
In three Shasta-Trinity projects, the early letters did not mention environmental effects, Levi wrote. But each project eventually included hundreds of pages of reports, most of which weren't made available to the public until after decisions were final.
"What is striking for all three of these projects is the agency's withholding of already-prepared environmental documents, even though the documents were completed before the end of the public comment period," Levi wrote in his decision.
Conservation groups filed a lawsuit late last year at the federal court in Sacramento after the Forest Service denied their appeals.
"The Forest Service has a duty to actively engage the public in decisions that involve our public lands, not cut us out of the process," said Kyle Haines of the Klamath Forest Alliance.
Forest Service spokesman Matt Mathes said Wednesday that the agency is considering an appeal.
"The judge seems to be requiring us to do something that we are not mandated to do under the National Environmental Policy Act," Mathes said. He declined to be more specific, saying officials were still analyzing the ruling.
According to Mathes, some of the timber harvesting was intended to bring the forests to a more natural condition -- less crowded, less prone to insect infestations and less at risk of devastating wildfire.
"We're simply concerned about the effects on the ground if we don't go through with this," he said.
The Lassen project would have logged about 14,000 acres. It was formally announced in a scoping notice received by conservation groups in March 2004.
After a comment period, the Forest Service prepared a series of internal reports totaling more than 300 pages, evaluating the potential effects on trees, wildlife and water. A 50-page environmental assessment was issued in August, along with a decision to move ahead with the logging.
The groups appealed, but were denied.
The three Shasta-Trinity projects, meanwhile, would have involved timber harvesting on about 5,770 acres.
One of the projects was announced in a three-page letter in March 2004, Levi wrote. An environmental assessment was finished in early July, and a comment period began. However, the forest did not make the assessment available during that period, or several other expert reports that had already been finished.
The assessment wasn't released until September and was accompanied with an announcement that the forest would go ahead with the project.
The Forest Service says it complied with the law by sending out scoping letters and inviting public comment, as well as releasing the environmental assessments when finished.
Indeed, the law doesn't require such assessments to be made public before a decision, the judge wrote.
However, the law does require "informed public participation" and disclosure of "as much information as is practicable," he wrote.
Levi wrote that forest officials had "no explanation" for why some already-finished documents couldn't be released to the public when completed, or at least summarized in the letters.
One of the Shasta-Trinity projects ultimately included 296 pages of reports about potential environmental effects, Levi wrote.
But in a letter seeking comments, the project was described in one sentence.
When the projects on 20,000 acres in the Shasta-Trinity and Lassen national forests were announced, forestry officials sought comment from interested citizens or groups, wrote U.S. District Judge David F. Levi. But the letters they sent ignored key issues later explained in environmental assessments after the projects were approved.
The Forest Service has a duty to actively engage the public in decisions that involve our public lands, not cut us out of the process," said Kyle Haines of the Klamath Forest Alliance, one of the conservation groups that filed suit challenging the projects.
The Forest Service claimed it complied with the law by sending the letters, but didn't need to detail environmental assessments.
Levi, however, said the service was required to disclose as much information as practical. The letters described the project in one sentence.
In three of the projects, environmental documents were not released to the public until after the projects were approved, the Sacramento-based judge wrote.
What is striking for all three of these projects is the agency's withholding of already prepared environmental documents, even though the documents were completed before the end of the public comment period," Levi wrote.
The Forest Service said it may appeal the decision that requires it to complete new environmental reviews.
Some of the timber harvesting was intended to thin out the forests to make them less prone to insect infestations and devastating wildfire, said Forest Service spokesman Matt Mathes.
SUSANVILLE - The U.S. Forest Service has suffered a series of setbacks that halted four logging projects and forced the withdrawal of two others on three national forests.
The decisions in all six cases involve the agency's process for notifying and involving the public as required by federal regulations.
On four of the timber projects, planned as part of regionwide activities designed to reduce the risk of wildfire, Forest Service officials failed to give the public enough data to make informed comments before announcing their decisions, U.S. District Court Judge David F. Levi ruled Friday.
He ordered the agency to suspend plans to log nearly 20,000 acres of the Lassen and Shasta-Trinity national forests until it complies with the requirements of the National Environmental Policy Act, or NEPA.
In a separate action on the Tahoe National Forest, Sierraville District Ranger Sam Wilbanks withdrew two logging projects after the Central Valley Regional Water Quality Control Board denied a timber harvest waiver citing inadequate public notification.
The Tahoe Forest did not comply with the water board's requirement that it provide "a reasonable opportunity" for the public to comment, executive officer Thomas R. Pinkos said in a June 24 letter.
On one project, the water board received an application to waive requirements a day before it received the official environmental assessment.
The waiver application, decision notice and environmental assessment arrived all on the same day for the other project, Pinkos said.
The Lahontan Regional Water Quality Control Board has also appealed one of the projects.
After the water board actions, Wilbanks announced that he was withdrawing both projects, intended to meet the fuels-reduction objectives of the 1998 Herger-Feinstein Quincy Library Group Forest Recovery Act. Wilbanks said he was particularly frustrated because he intentionally designed the process to involve the public early on and avoid "eleventh-hour problems."
His action will raise the cost of the projects and delay them for up to a year, he said.
Levi's 20-page court ruling was in response to separate lawsuits filed by six environmental groups on timber harvests planned for national forests in Northern California.
The largest, the North 49, is also a Quincy Library Group project designed to restore fire-adapted ecosystems and reduce wildfire risks by logging 14,000 acres on the Lassen National Forest north of Lassen Volcanic National Park.
To comply with federal NEPA regulations requiring public notification, Lassen officials issued a 13-page document that included 2 1/2 pages discussing how the agency would reduce anticipated impacts to wildlife, watershed and cultural resources.
The environmental assessment released seven months later was accompanied by a final decision.
Although the decision found no significant impacts from the project, it was based on internal reports totaling more than 300 pages of evaluation, Levi said.
The Shasta-Trinity National Forest followed a similar public input process on three projects involving logging on 5,700 acres, said Levi, who issued a joint opinion on the four projects because they raise the same legal issues.
He cited recent case law requiring the Forest Service to demonstrate that it took a "hard look" at the environmental consequences of the project and responded to public comments.
"If the court permits these projects to go forward without informed public comment, the new environmental review process ordered by the court will be a pointless exercise," Levi said.
Forest Service officials are considering an appeal of his ruling, regional agency spokesman Matt Mathes said.
"From a legal standpoint, we are concerned about the judge creating new requirements that are not imposed by NEPA. On the land itself, we are concerned about the fire hazard created by unnatural overcrowded stands of timber and insect infestation, both of which could kill the trees," Mathes said.
The actions of the judge and the water agencies could affect additional projects proposed under the Quincy Library Group legislation, said Craig Thomas, director of the Sierra Forest Protection Campaign.
Many are using the process that involves a decision notice issued at the same time as an environmental assessment, which Levi found inadequate, he said.
In a ruling that could have national implications, a federal judge yesterday halted four timber sales in Northern California forests, saying the Forest Service failed to adequately collect public comments on environmental studies.
Judge David Levi of the Eastern District of California in Sacramento halted sales in the Shasta-Trinity and Lassen national forests, siding with environmental groups who said the government failed to allow adequate public input as the National Environmental Policy Act requires.
While the service sent letters seeking comment on the proposed projects, the agency did not prepare a draft environmental assessment (EA) or release other documents that would have allowed the public to examine the proposals.
Current NEPA regulations from the White House Council on Environmental Quality do not require agencies to circulate a draft EA, but "they do require that the public be given as much environmental information as is practicable," Levi wrote.
"To be on the safe side, the agency can never go wrong by releasing a draft EA, and supporting documents, as was the practice until recently," Levi added.
Forest Service Region 5 spokesman Matt Mathes said the agency is considering an appeal. "The judge appears to be creating requirements that the National Environmental Policy Act does not require," Mathes said.
The Forest Service stopped sending draft environmental assessments on all projects a couple of years ago as part of an effort to streamline the NEPA process. But Marc Fink, an attorney with the Western Environmental Law Center, said the ruling could force the agency to reverse that position.
"The way the Forest Service has been doing things the past couple of years could be affected by this decision," Fink said. "This will certainly slow down attempts to ram these things through regardless of what the public thinks about it."
Agency spokesperson Heidi Valetkevitch said the Forest Service is reviewing the ruling and analyzing any potential national policy effects.
Aside from the legal aspects of the case, the service maintains the projects in the Shasta-Trinity forest are needed to address forest health problems there, Mathes said. Some areas there are unusually dense, inviting insect attacks and increasing the risk of wildfires.
The blocked timber sales are the Eagle Ranch, Powder and Edson projects on the Shasta-Trinity National Forest and the North 49 timber sale on the Lassen National Forest.
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