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Mendocino National Forest sued by environmentalists for allegedly logging under guise of roadside maintenance

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Plans for commercial salvage logging in fire-ravaged areas of the Mendocino National Forest have given rise to a federal lawsuit in which a North Coast conservation group claims U.S. Forest Service officials bypassed required environmental scrutiny by improperly framing the work as “roadside hazard tree maintenance” eligible for exclusion from time-consuming review.

Nearly 7,000 acres of burned forest north of Clear Lake is at issue, vestiges of the Ranch fire, California’s largest-ever wildfire. Over 7½ weeks in the late summer of 2018, it rampaged across 641 square miles of remote, mountainous territory, much of it in the expansive Mendocino National Forest north of Clear Lake.

Thousands of trees were burned in the blaze, which left ridgeline after ridgeline of blackened trees standing and others fallen on the ground to rot, as well as stump holes and hollow root chambers below ground as potential hazards in the earth.

The forest service recovery plan has always included an effort to salvage any timber that still had value. Such efforts typically must be accomplished within months of a fire, before trees killed by fire decompose or become infested.

But in late March, when the Forest Service announced a series of “hazard tree management projects” in the Ranch fire area allowing removal of “merchantable trees” from approximately 7,000 acres along selected roadways, the Arcata-based Environmental Protection Information Center was alarmed to learn it would be excluded from public input or environmental scoping, EPIC Executive Director Tom Wheeler said.

The basis was a provision of the federal policy involving repair and maintenance of roads and trails for “salvage of dead and/or dying trees” in an area “not to exceed 250 acres,” among other things, according to a March press release issued by the Forest Service.

The trees were to be removed from within 200 feet of certain forest service roads and within 100 feet of roads in the Snow Mountain Wilderness. It included trees that may still be alive but have a 50 percent or greater probability of fire-induced mortality, the news release said, starting with a 500-acre project in one of the hardest-hit areas in the Bartlett Springs area near Upper Lake.

But at 7,000 acres in total, it far exceeded the 250-acre limitation, even if each acre were taken separately, according to the lawsuit filed Wednesday in U.S. District Court in San Francisco and Oakland.

By failing to prepare an environmental assessment or environmental impact statement as required under federal law, forest Supervisor Ann Carlson and her staff violated their own regulations, it says.

Carlson was not available for comment Thursday and her spokeswoman, Sandra “Punky” Moore, declined to answer questions on pending litigation.

“The Mendocino National Forest is taking a page from Trump’s playbook,” said Wheeler, executive director and staff attorney for EPIC, a more than 40-year-old forest-protection nonprofit that claims about 3,000 members. “Calling a timber sale ‘road maintenance’ is a stunning way to stifle public participation and ignore environmental impacts.”

He said his organization called Carlson the day the projects were announced to express their concerns about impacts to wildlife habitat, watersheds and erosion-prone hillsides. Their concern, he said, is that burned trees — even those that are dead — continue to contribute ecologically and provide wildlife habitat for all kinds of small animals and birds, including Northern spotted owls, which are listed as threatened under the federal Endangered Species Act.

Logging both destroys and fragments habitat, the lawsuit states.

The suit also cites potential soil disturbance and erosion from heavy equipment operations used in logging, moving and stacking timber. Such damage is unnecessary, it says, claiming many of the roads along which logging is occurring will never be open for public use.

Wheeler also said post-fire logging remains controversial in terms of its effects on future fire risk, with some experts saying the slash and debris left behind after logging operations is more fire prone than the potential fuel created by standing, dead forest.

“If you’re a homeowner in Lake County, and you’ve almost been burned out a couple of times, that’s really scary,” Wheeler said, “and we want government decision-makers to fully understand and appreciate the consequences of their actions.”

Logging is underway in the 500-acre Bartlett project area, north of Nice and Lucerne in Lake County, Moore said. No other logging has begun.

You can reach Staff Writer Mary Callahan at 707-521-5249 or mary.callahan@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @MaryCallahanB.

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