A project to thin and burn trees across 2,700 acres of the Tahoe National Forest to address an outbreak of bark beetles was approved by a federal appeals court Monday, over the opposition of environmental groups.
The 9th US Circuit Court of Appeals held that the US Forest Service designation of 5.3 million acres as landscape-scale area did not violation the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA). And it upheld a finding that the project to thin and burn on 2,700 acres did not invoke “extraordinary circumstances” allowing the project to be excluded from NEPA review.
In 2014, the US Forest Service designated 5.3 million acres of land in California, including the Tahoe National Forest as a landscape-scale area that was experiencing declining forest health and at risk of substantial tree die-off.
Known as the Sunny South Project, the Service instituted a plan in 2015 to stem the outbreak of bark beetles caused by four years of drought that put moisture stress in trees and dense stands of almost pure ponderosa pine in sizes that attract the beetles.
In 2016, biologists completed evaluation of the effects of the thinning and burning of the California spotted owl and the loss or viability of other sensitive species. They concluded the project may affect individuals, but was unlikely to result in pushing toward federal listing or lost viability of the spotted owl.
The Forest Service approved the project in 2016 and that it was excluded from NEPA. The Center for Biological Diversity and Earth Island Institute sued to stop the plan. They argued the 5.3 million acres should not have been designated without first preparing an environmental impact statement.
The trial court sided with the Forest Service and intervenor, Sierra Pacific Industries, a logging company, and dismissed the case. That prompted the appeal.
The appeals court said the 2014 Healthy Forest Restoration Act allowed an exception to the NEPA requirements of an environmental statement.
“We therefore hold that the Forest Service’s designation of landscape-scale areas does not require and EIS or EA under NEPA,” wrote Judge Jacqueline Nguyen for the panel.
She was joined by Judge Milan Smith and visiting Judge Jane Restani of the US Court of International Trade.
Case: Center for Biological Diversity v. Ilano, 17-16760