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Judge Halts Four Timber Projects
By Paul Boerger, Mt Shasta Herald
July 20, 2005

Four timber projects, two of which are in the local Shasta-McCloud Management Unit, were halted June 30th by federal Judge David Levi, Eastern District of California.

The Shasta-McCloud projects at issue, called Powder and Epson, comprise approximately 5,000 acres.

The Powder project comprises 1,770 acres and involves thinning, timber harvest and planting conifers. The Epson project spans 3,000 acres and involves thinning, tree harvesting and removal of hazardous woody fuels.

Levi was also involved in another local issue last year as he was the judge who found in favor of Calpine in a lawsuit designed to halt Calpine's construction of geothermal electrical generation plants at Medicine Lake.

In the recent opinion, Levi said the Forest Service had not properly notified the public of potential environmental impacts.

"The court finds that although the Council of Environmental Quality regulations do not require circulation of a draft Environmental Assessment, they do require that the public be given as much environmental information as is practicable, prior to completion of the EA, so that the public has a sufficient basis to address those subject areas that the agency must consider in preparing the EA," the opinion states. "All of the projects are of small scale and likely would be finished before further environmental review could be completed. Finally, although one of the goals of the Edson project is to prevent on-going tree mortality by harvesting insect infested trees, the Forest Service has not provided any data, or even a declaration, to substantiate its claim that the infestation is spreading rapidly or endangering the value of the timber."

Levi concludes, "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. To afford plaintiffs any relief and to ensure that the procedural goals of NEPA are served, these projects must be enjoined."

Shasta-Trinity National Forest public relations officer Mike Odle said the Forest Service is considering appealing the decision.

"We're very concerned," Odle said. "Judge Levi is asking us to do things under the National Environmental Protection Act we are not required to do. They are asking us to provide assessments before a decision is made."

Odle said he could not comment on the specifics while an appeal is being considered.

"The Shasta-Trinity has not violated NEPA," Odle said.

Forest Service regional spokesperson Matt Mathes said the judge is asking for a "Draft Environmental Assessment."

"There's no such thing," Mathes said. "We do an EA and if there is a finding of significant impact, we do a Draft Environmental Impact Statement and take public comment."

Mathes said the projects in question were found to have no significant impact.

He said the projects did not use new rules under the Healthy Forest Initiative such as "categorical exclusion" or "survey and manage," which were instituted to streamline forest projects.

"They were not used," Mathes said. "The projects were too large for that."

Attorney Mike Fink of Western Environmental Law Center, which represented one of the plaintiffs in the case. said although the case did not involve Healthy Forest Initiative issues, 2003 changes in how the Forest Service conducts EAs has weakened public input.

"This is an important decision that will require the Forest Service to once again meaningfully involve the public in its environmental review process, in keeping with the National Environmental Policy Act," Fink said.

According to Fink, the 2003 changes disallowed public comment on EAs in violation of NEPA.

"Whatever the administrative regulations say, the judge ruled the Forest Service needs to comply with NEPA," Fink said.

Kyle Haines of the Klamath Forest Alliance agrees that the Forest Service must fully inform the public of environmental issues.

"For each of these sales, the judge found that the Forest Service had completed specialist reports, some even years prior, but failed to inform the public of the existence of these documents," Haines said.

Levi appears to agree with Haines' assessment.

"When compared with the extensive environmental analysis eventually produced, the two-and three-page public scoping notices were not adequate to inform the public of the kinds of data and information that the agency would rely on in the preparation of the EA," Levi said. "Moreover, what is striking for 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."

"I'm happy we live in a country where we can question our government," said Shasta-McCloud Management Unit deputy district ranger Pricila Franco.

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