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(SACRAMENTO) – Attorney General Bill Lockyer today filed a lawsuit to force the Bush Administration to set aside its plan to cut down more trees and reduce wildlife protections in 11.5 million acres of Sierra Nevada National Forest land, and in the process decrease fire safety near homes and communities.
"With no basis in science and no new facts, the Bush Administration has jettisoned the product of more than 10 years of study, public participation and consensus building," said Lockyer. "What the Forest Service disingenuously calls a fine-tuning is really a complete overhaul that will make our communities less safe from fires at the same time it damages treasured forests."
Lockyer filed the federal court lawsuit on behalf of the people of California one day after a coalition of conservation groups filed a similar challenge. Both actions were filed in U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of California. The defendants in Lockyer's lawsuit are: the U.S. Department of Agriculture and Secretary Mike Johanns; Mark Rey, U.S. Agriculture Undersecretary for Natural Resources and the Environment; the U.S. Forest Service (USFS) and Chief Dale Bosworth; and Jack Blackwell, USFS regional forester for the Pacific-Southwest Region.
At issue is the Sierra Nevada National Forest Framework (Framework), a plan to manage 11.5 million acres of land in 11 forests. The Framework, approved by Bosworth November 18, 2004, gutted a 2001 plan originally drafted during the Clinton Administration. Rey was supposed to take final action on the 2004 Framework by the end of last Friday. He had not done so as of Monday.
The 2001 Framework resulted from more than 10 years of exhaustive study and public review. That plan, Lockyer and the conservation groups contend, reasonably balanced logging and other uses with preservation of old growth forests, wildlife and water quality. At the same time, the 2001 Framework strongly safeguarded communities from wildfires.
The Bush Administration gave the 2001 plan virtually no time to work before it began the process of revising it. But the 2004 Framework, Lockyer's complaint alleges, does not merely revise the 2001 version; it revokes it. In the process, the 2004 plan more than quadruples timber harvesting and erodes wildlife and habitat protections, the complaint says. Additionally, Lockyer and other critics say the 2004 Framework actually will increase the threat wildfires pose to California communities.
The USFS falsely told the public the 2004 Framework was a mere adjustment to "better achieve the goals" of the original plan, according to Lockyer's complaint. "In fact, however, the 2004 Framework is opposed to the 2001 Framework in virtually every material respect related to the protection of wildlife and habitat and the approach to scientific uncertainty, and reflects the agency's new willingness to risk long term, irretrievable losses in exchange for short term economic gains," the complaint alleges.
In approving the 2004 Framework, Lockyer's complaint alleges, the USFS acted in an "arbitrary and capricious" manner to reach a "predetermined" outcome. Specifically, the USFS' 2004 plan has no foundation in new science, new facts or changed circumstances, according to the complaint.
The agency violated the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) and the federal Administrative Procedures Act (APA), which governs regulatory decision-making, the complaint alleges. Those violations include the failure to: base the action on a "reasoned analysis"; adequately assess the environmental and other effects of replacing the 2001 Framework with the 2004 revision; evaluate alternatives to rejecting the 2001 Framework; and account for incomplete or unavailable information.
To buttress the contention that gutting the 2001 Framework was predetermined, Lockyer's complaint notes that while the USFS supposedly was conducting an objective review, it hired a public relations firm to "promote the agency's predetermined decision to dismantle the 2001 Framework." The complaint adds, "The result was the Forest Service's ‘Forests with a Future' campaign, which played to the public's fears concerning wildfire, falsely minimized potential impacts to wildlife and habitat from increased timber harvesting, and advocated more active management and removal of large trees."
Lockyer stressed protecting communities from wildfires must be a top priority for the state and federal government. But he noted the 2001 Framework accomplished that objective while protecting old-growth trees, wildlife and recreational uses of the forest. The 2001 plan featured a balanced approach that included prescribed burning, letting wildfires burn as part of the natural process (where such fires would not threaten people or property), and cutting and clearing where required to reduce fuel loads. In fact, the USFS itself concluded the 2001 Framework was consistent with the National Fire Plan.
In contrast, the 2004 Framework relies heavily on logging big trees. Lockyer noted experts say such an approach actually reduces fire safety for communities because it focuses on eliminating large, fire-resistant trees far away from homes instead of the smaller trees and brush that fuel fires closer to residential neighborhoods.
"We do not have to choose between fire prevention and environmental protection," said Lockyer. "The Forest Service seems to think otherwise, but we can have both. We can address our very real wildfire problem without the revised Framework, and without its heavy emphasis on harvesting old-growth trees. To see how, we need look no further than the original Framework."
The conservation groups which filed suit Monday include: Earthjustice, Sierra Nevada Forest Protection Campaign, Sierra Club, Natural Resources Defense Council, Center for Biological Diversity and the Wilderness Society.