Public Lands Program: Healthy Forests
Forest management is not a partisan issue, it affects all communities equally. The legal and scientific issues may appear complex, and the solutions that American forest need may seem elusive first blush. Yet workable solutions are not out of reach and all Americans are fully capable of understanding these issues.
The Crag Law Center works with its conservation clients and people from across the political spectrum to advocate for sound forest stewardship, sustainable forest practices and restoration of our public lands.
Soon after the Bush Administration took office in 2001, local land managers were pushed by the administration’s new political appointees to rush controversial logging projects targeted old growth forests and roadless areas in areas burned by fire. The administration promoted its “Healthy Forest Initiative” as a way to reduce the risks of wildfire by thinning forests.
This initiative was primarily a media effort by the administration to use the language of conservation to mask its real objectives. Through it, the public was bombarded with the idea that human intervention through the active logging of sensitive burned areas was the best way to ensure forest heatlh.
However, the science suggests that these actions may actually increase the risk of fire. The best available research shows that these actions are frequently a tax on ecological recovery. Behind the scenes, the administration was working hard to eliminate key aspects of the nation’s bedrock environmental laws. Many of the new rules that the administration advanced allow expedited commercial logging and minimize public participation. Local residents, agency employees and conservation groups distrusted the changes and the Crag Law Center stepped up to challenge the worst abuses in Court.
When it came to actual implementation on the ground, local citizens found that federal agencies were logging fire-resistant old growth trees and entering the last remaining roadless areas. Scientists have identified the remaining roadless wildlands in Oregon and Washington as key to the survival of native populations of fish and wildlife. The best available science also shows that old growth forests serve as long-term carbon sinks, and thus buffer the impacts of climate change. The Pacific Northwest’s forests provide clean drinking water, as well as critical wildlife corridors for hundreds of species of fish and wildlife. In the face of the onslaught from the Bush administration, the Crag Law Center was frequently asked by local people, conservation groups and whistleblowers to defend the nation’s environmental laws and limit the negative impacts of the “Healthy Forest Initiative” on the places where they live, work and raise their families.
The rule of law is a founding principle in the United States Constitution. Many of the nation’s bedrock laws governing federal forestlands were put in place between the 1960s and 1970s to ensure that the public would have a voice in decisions affecting our forests.
On behalf of local citizens Crag has brought actions to enforce these laws, to mediate disputes and to achieve workable solutions. The Crag Law Center has represented groups who have supported smart, prioritized efforts to improve forest health on the ground. And, Crag has helped its clients challenge untenable interpretations of the law that violate scientific integrity or target sensitive areas. Quite tellingly, in March of 2006, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals issued a decision against the Forest Service’s decision to pursue a post-fire logging project in the El Dorado National Forest. The case highlighted how far the Bush administration had overreached:
“We have noticed a disturbing trend in the USFS’s recent timber-harvesting and timber-sale activities. See, e.g., Ecology Ctr., Inc. v. Austin, 430 F.3d 1057 (9th Cir. 2005) (holding that the USFS’s post-fire treatment of old-growth forest stands in the Lolo National Forest violated both the NFMA and NEPA, and that the EIS failed to explain adequately the adverse impacts of the proposed plan on the black-backed woodpecker); Lands Council v. Powell, 395 F.3d 1019 (9th Cir. 2005) (reversing the district court’s grant of summary judgment to the USFS because its EIS did not take a “hard look” at past timber harvests or current trout habitat conditions Idaho Sporting Cong. v. Rittenhouse, 305 F.3d 957 (9th Cir. 2002) (remanding to the district court to enjoin two timber sales approved in violation of the NFMA and NEPA). See also Utah Envtl. Cong. v. Bosworth, 421 F.3d 1105 (10th Cir. 2005) (holding that the USFS did not properly monitor MIS species and did not consider a reasonable range of alternatives in a proposed timber-harvesting project); Sierra Club v. Eubanks, 335 F. Supp. 2d 1070 (E.D. Cal. 2004) (granting a preliminary injunction against salvage logging provided for in the USFS’s post-fire Red Star Restoration Project); Sierra Club v. Bosworth, 199 F. Supp. 2d 971 (N.D. Cal. 2002)(rejecting the USFS’s argument that post-fire salvage burning was needed to prevent a future fire and enjoin implementation of post-fire salvage logging); Colo. Wild v. U.S. Forest Serv., 299 F.Supp.2d 1184 (D. Colo. 2004) (granting a preliminary injunction of a timber salvage project because the USFS failed to gather population data for MIS species); Forest Guardians v. U.S. Forest Serv., 180 F. Supp. 2d 1273 (D. N.M. 2001) (reversing authorization of a timber sale in the Cibola National Forest because of the USFS’s failure to collect adequate MIS population data).
It has not escaped our notice that the USFS has a substantial financial interest in the harvesting of timber in the National Forest. We regret to say that in this case, like the others just cited, the USFS appears to have been more interested in harvesting timber than in complying with our environmental laws.” (From Earth Island Institute v. United States Forest Service — contact the Crag Law Center for a copy)
Crag Law Center Helps Citizens Protect the Nations’ Forests.
The Crag Law Center and volunteer law clerks from Oregon law schools and other schools from across the country work with local citizens, residents, conservation groups, recreation groups and watershed districts to engage public land managers in solutions-oriented approaches. The Crag Law Center works with agency leaders, scientific experts and local citizens to investigate the impacts of projects on our public lands. The Crag Law Center is frequently asked to represent local interests in challenges to projects which do not adhere to the National Environmental Protection Act, the Endangered Species Act, the National Forest Management Act and the Northwest Forest Plan. The Crag Law Center helps its clients investigate and participate in the public process on land management projects.
Forest Fires Are a Natural Part of the Ecosytem
The primary problem with the Healthy Forest Initiative is that it primarily consists of rule changes, which were never approved by Congress, that rush decision making and limit accountability. The new rules do not provide meaningful approximations of the scientific reality – in terms of either quantifying the impacts of the extractive proposals on the ecosystem or in terms of the economics of the vast range of goods and services that come from the nation’s forests.
Fire has played a natural and beneficial role in our forests. The 20th century American policies of active forest fire suppression, as well as extensive livestock grazing and commercial logging, have lead to what many have been termed a forest health crisis. Decades of militaristic fire fighting and suppression, intensive logging practices, and harmful grazing practices have created a situation where more than 88 percent of the naturally fire-resistant, old growth trees in the Pacific Northwest have been cut*, and fast-burning fuels such as pine trees less than 10 inches in diameter and exotic invasive annuals and grasses, have grown in their place (*data from the 2002 US Forest Service Resource Planning Act Assessment Report, http://www.fia.fs.fed.us/program-features/rpa/).
While forest products are a legitimate component of the forest and economy of the Pacific Northwest, since 2001 years there has been a strong push to use fire management goals as a surrogate for rapidly moving logging projects forward. Proponents of logging in disturbed post-fire landscapes like to paint a picture of a burned forest as a desolate zone that is devoid of all life and in need of human intervention to make it “green and full of life again.” The real purpose of these projects is to take the economic value of the dead trees.
However, the Pacific Northwest’s forests were born in fire. When a fire moves through the forest it does not affect each tree equally. Some fires burn intensely while others burn at moderate or low intensity. This differentiation of burning severity is crucial in the evolution of forest ecology. Down logs and snags play a vital role in a forest ecosystem by providing invaluable habitat, contributing to soil health and aiding in the regeneration of the forest. Many tree species show incredible tolerance to fire activity and can survive even when 90% of the crown has been burned. Fire affected trees also hold large amounts of water that may aid in reducing the risk of a future fire.
The “Healthy Forest Initiative” sought to mislead the public into supporting increased logging in the name of “fuel reduction projects.” While the health of America’s public forests is pressing and urgent, the real danger is not forest fire. The real danger is the lasting damage Americans will do to our forests if science and accountability are taken out of decisions on these federal lands. Past projects and science tell us that thinning is not a panacea, and especially when driven by large-scale commercial interests, this is not the way for us to ensure forest health.
Protecting Homes & Communities
The increased proximity between homes and forestland has created a situation where rural homes are at great risk when fire breaks out. However, scientific studies have shown that the most important factor in determining the susceptibility of a home to burn is the existence of trees within close proximity to the home. Statistics show that so long as certain fire reduction guidelines are followed by homeowners, the risk for damage to homes during a fire occurrence is very low.
Jack D. Cohen, a scientist working for the Forest Service has written studies documenting the risk reduction of home ignitability. Cohen has concluded that remote thinning projects can do little to protect homes from wildfire. Instead, he recommends that the only way to reduce the risk is to remove trees near homes. The current administration’s Healthy Forest Initiative projects ride roughshod over the will of local communities who seek to encourage projects that actually ensure forest health. Local residents have been alarmed at the the focus that is being placed on logging remote areas within old growth stands that have never previously been logged. These kinds of actions will have little effect on the protection of homes from fire.