Groups File Lawsuit on Orleans Fuels Project

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Thursday, May 13th, 2010
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EPIC and Klamath Forest Alliance staffer Kimberly Baker investigating logging in the Orleans Fuels project.

A coalition of three environmental organizations, including EPIC, joined the Karuk Tribe in filing a lawsuit May 12 against the Six Rivers National Forest challenging the Forest Service’s implementation of the Orleans Community Fuels Reduction Project (OCFR). The complaint charges that the Forest Service violated several federal laws by allowing inappropriate logging and heavy equipment operation in an area considered sacred to the Karuk Tribe, as well as logging that is not consistent with the fuels treatment and fire protection purpose of the project.

“We are proud to work with the Tribe to protect the landscapes they have been caring for over thousands of years. There is no community in Northern California more capable and sophisticated than the Orleans and Somes Bar community in terms of their ability to plan and prepare for fire, and to live with fire on the landscape,” said Scott Greacen, Executive Director of EPIC.

The Orleans area, like many communities in Western forests, faces real threats to public safety from fires that can burn more intensely because decades of fire suppression and industrial logging have left heavy fuel loads and fire-prone timber plantations. Local community members, including tribal fire crews and the Orleans-Somes Bar Fire Safe Council, have created and begun to implement a carefully drawn plan to protect residences, key egress routes, and defensible spaces – the  Orleans Community Wildfire Protection Plan.

CVR-kelley-mtg-group-7804Rather than fund and follow that existing plan, the Forest Service repeatedly attempted over years of meetings between the Karuk Tribe, local land owners, conservation groups and restoration workers that have led to the current Orleans Fuels Project, to create a commercial logging project. The agency has done so by enlarging the area of the project and targetting valuable large trees which, from a fuels standpoint, should be retained rather than logged. While carefully designed understory thinning is critically necessary to reduce fire risks, conventional logging actually increases fire risks over the long term.

After years of resisting the agency’s timber-first agenda, many members of the collaborative planning group filed a formal objection to the plan. That objection was resolved when the Forest Service promised to remove big trees and unnecessary units from the project, and to proceed carefully in its operations around key Karuk cultural areas. However, when logging began last fall, community members quickly discovered that what was happening on the ground was not what they had agreed to support. In fact, the size and number of trees being cut indicated that the fuels treatment purpose of the project was actually being sacrificed to commercial logging. Worse still, key Karuk cultural sites were being degraded by the logging activities in a way that demonstrated a callous disregard for the importance of these landscapes in the living, breathing Karuk Tribal culture.

“We participated in good faith in the Forest Service’s collaborative process and we were assured that our sacred areas would be protected and our cultural values respected. It’s now obvious that those were hollow promises,” said Leaf Hillman, Natural Resources Director for the Karuk Tribe.

At issue is the use of heavy logging equipment in areas deemed sacred by the Karuk Tribe; divergence from measures designed to ‘protect, promote, enhance and restore’ stands of ecologically sensitive hardwoods; failure to protect large diameter trees; and a failure to make good on a commitment for multi-party monitoring during the fuels reduction operations.

“Our community needs fire protection, and everyone in the collaborative process supports appropriate thinning. But what is actually happening here is industrial logging that’s likely to increase fire risks to the community,” said local resident Kimberly Baker, who represents the Klamath Forest Alliance and EPIC.

The Karuk Tribe is resurrecting its ancient traditions of forest management, in which they have used fire to maintain “orchards” of important hardwood species like oaks and madrones. Working with the local fire safe council, the Mid-Klamath Watershed Council (MKWC) and local residents with long experience of serious fires in the Salmon river and Klamath basins, the tribe and concerned environmental groups were able to reach a remarkable consensus about what does, and does not, need to happen in fuels treatments around Orleans.

“It’s a real shame and a tragic reflection on the Forest Service’s institutional compulsion to pursue industrial logging at every opportunity, that the agency has squandered the opportunity to work with the tribe, the community, and environmental groups that do support the kind of sensible thinning outlined in the OCFR,” Greacen from EPIC said.

According to the Final Environmental Impact Statement for the project, the stated Purpose and Need for the Orleans Community Fuel Reduction and Forest Health Project (OCFR) is to “manage forest stands to reduce fuels accumulations and improve forest health around the community of Orleans, while enhancing cultural values associated with the Panamnik World Renewal Ceremonial District.”

However, the actual work on the ground is clearly inconsistent with these stated goals. According to Hillman, “Supervisor Kelly and the Forest Service have already destroyed cultural sites that are still used by the Tribe during World Renewal Ceremonies. This clearly compromises the integrity of spiritual values associated with the Panamnik World Renewal District.”

The areas being debated represent 914 acres to be mechanically harvested. The USFS awarded the contract to Timber Products in Eureka for nearly $1 million dollars.

Outraged Tribal members and local residents halted work on the project last November by blockading logging roads that access the units to be cut. Locals then invited local forest activists into the community to provide direct-action trainings in tree sitting and other tactics in preparation of the return of logging crews. Since then the project has been on hold, but no agreement between the Forest Service and the community has been reached.

In addition to his role as Natural Resources Director, Leaf Hillman is a Karuk Ceremonial Leader in Orleans.  According to Hillman, “Obviously Supervisor Kelley has no respect for this community or native cultures. The Tribe and local community members worked hard to develop a fuels reduction plan that meets the needs of both the people and the Forest Service. Kelley’s actions are not only an act of bad faith; they are an act of cultural genocide. We will not sit idly by while he destroys the ecological integrity of these forests and the Karuk Tribe’s sacred areas — we will defend our homeland.”

The complaint, filed May 12th in Northern California District Court charges that Kelly and the US Forest Service violated the National Historic Preservation Act, National Environmental Protection Act, National Forest Management Act, Healthy Forests Restoration Act, and the Administrative Procedures Act. Plaintiffs in the suit include the Karuk Tribe, EPIC, Klamath Siskiyou Wildlands Center, and the Klamath Forest Alliance. The case will be heard by Judge William Alsup, who has issued important rulings in previous environmental cases.

View the Times Standard Article.