9th Circuit Court Axes Trump Administration Plan to Thin Forests to Manage Wildfires

A helicopter drops water to a brush fire at the Holy Fire in Lake Elsinore, California, southeast of Los Angeles, on August 11, 2018. - The fire has burned 21,473 acres and was 29 percent contained as of 8:30 a.m. Saturday, according to the Cleveland National Forest. (Photo by RINGO …
RINGO CHIU/AFP/Getty Images

The Trump administration has been working to prevent the deadly wildfires that have plagued the West by putting in place forest management practices, including thinning forests in Oregon to reduce fire fuel.

But environmental activists have taken the matter to court and found judges in the United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit who ruled the United States Forest Service put the plan in place “without assessing its environmental impact.”

Courthouse News reported on the legal battle:

In 2018, several conservation groups sued the agency over plans to sell timber harvested from about 12,000 acres of public land, including roughly 4,000 acres of old-growth conifers in Mt. Hood National Forest. The Forest Service dubbed it the Crystal Clear Restoration Project, saying the tree-thinning would reduce wildfire risk.

But Cascade Wildlands, Bark, and Oregon Wild argued that mature tree removal may not actually help with fire suppression, pointing to articles from The Open Forest Science Journal and Forest Ecology and Management, as well as other expert sources to support their claims.

“The plaintiffs, especially Bark, got people out into the landscape and spent thousands of hours collecting information about what was going on in the land and gave that information to the Forest Service,” said attorney Brenna Bell, who has spent four years on the case.

“Finding substantial questions were raised about the project’s effect on local wildlife, a three-judge panel of the Ninth Circuit overturned a court ruling that would have allowed the project to go forward,” Courthouse News reported.

“The effects of the project are highly controversial and uncertain, thus mandating the creation of an EIS,” the judges said in a memo. “The stated primary purpose of the CCR Project is to reduce the risk of wildfires and promote safe fire-suppression activities, but appellants identify scientific evidence showing that variable density thinning will not achieve this purpose.”

Courthouse News noted that the memo was not publicly published.

“The panel, comprised of Circuit Judges Marsha Berzon and Susan Graber, both Bill Clinton appointees, and Fifth Circuit Judge Stephen Higginson, a Barack Obama appointee, refrained from making a judgment call about the effectiveness of forest thinning in preventing fires,” Courthouse News reported.

“This dispute is of substantial consequence because variable density thinning is planned in the entire project area, and fire management is a crucial issue that has wide-ranging ecological impacts and affects human life,” the memo said.

“The section of the EA [environmental assessment] actually analyzing the cumulative effects on vegetation resources did not refer to any of these other projects. Nor are there any specific factual findings that would allow for informed decision-making,” the memo said.

The memo said judges disagreed with the Forest Service’s conclusion that the thinning would have a beneficial effect that would allow fire to play a constructive and not destructive role in forest health, calling it a “vague and uncertain analysis.” 

The judges remanded the case to the district court.

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