PORTLAND — Environmentalists want to reinstate an injunction against salvage logging on 1,800 acres in California’s Klamath National Forest while the federal government and a timber group argue the matter is moot.
The convoluted lawsuit over harvesting burned trees recently landed before the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, which on Oct. 21 heard oral arguments over whether the Seiad-Horse Risk Reduction Project was lawfully approved — and whether the matter is even still worth debating.
In 2017, a wildfire tore through about 10,800 acres of the national forest, which prompted the U.S. Forest Service to propose a project that included risk reduction salvage logging of 1,800 acres as well as hazard tree removal along 39 miles of roads.
Three environmental groups — Klamath-Siskiyou Wildlands Center, Environmental Protection Information Center and Klamath Forest Alliance — filed suit against the project last year, arguing it violated federal environmental and forest management laws.
U.S. District Judge Troy Nunley in Sacramento initially agreed to block the project because he determined the environmental plaintiffs “raised serious questions” about the impacts of logging on water quality and the habitat of the northern spotted owl, which is listed as threatened under the federal Endangered Species Act.
The judge also ruled that the environmental groups were likely to succeed on their claim that a more comprehensive environmental study of the project was necessary and that the organizations would probably experience “irreparable injury” from the salvage logging.
However, Nunley later suspended the enforcement of that preliminary injunction while the Forest Service and the American Forest Resource Council, a timber industry organization, challenged the decision before the 9th Circuit.
The judge stayed the injunction after the government submitted evidence that the value of burned trees is “rapidly declining” and that the money they’d generate is needed to complete the entire project, which is necessary for public safety.
By the time a three-judge panel recently heard oral arguments in Portland, Ore., most of the salvage logging and hazard tree removal had already occurred and would likely be finished by Nov. 10, said Robert Lundman, the government’s attorney.
“We’re close to mootness,” he said.
Even if the 9th Circuit doesn’t believe the case is moot, the injunction should still be dissolved because salvage logging will allow the forest to regain old growth characteristics 130 years earlier than if it was left untouched, Lundman said.
Currently, the burned acreage is “at best marginal foraging habitat” for the northern spotted owl, he said.
About 88% of the total project area will be left to regenerate naturally and won’t be salvage logged, allowing the plaintiffs to still recreate in the area, he said.
Meanwhile, finishing the commercial logging is necessary to fund the safety-focused aspects of the project, Lundman said. “The purpose of this project is not economics.”
Julie Weis, attorney for the American Forest Industries Council, also urged the 9th Circuit to declare the lawsuit moot because the project could be done even earlier than Nov. 10 and because the remaining work involves firewood removal, which wasn’t the lawsuit’s target.
The environmental plaintiffs countered that the litigation isn’t moot because there are still portions of the project that were approved for salvage logging, though they’re not scheduled to be cut, said Susan Jane McKibben Brown, their attorney.
It’s also possible for court-ordered activities to take place within the project site that would mitigate the adverse effects of logging, she said.
The Forest Service’s models showed that salvage logging would increase sediment in waterways by up to 130%, McKibben Brown said.
The environmental groups also contend the number of “snag trees” needed for spotted owl habitat was inflated by expanding the project’s boundaries to include areas that aren’t slated for harvest.
“It’s very clear that snags are being retained in no-harvest areas,” McKibben Brown said.
The judge also accepted the claim that salvage logging is needed to generate cash to fully implement the project, but that argument wasn’t backed up by any economic analysis, she said. “He relied on information that didn’t exist.”