EPIC in Court

BREAKING:EPIC Litigates Mendocino National Forest’s Latest Attempt To Evade Environmental Review

Thursday, October 17th, 2019
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Mendocino National Forest bulldozer lines are linear clearcuts harmful to wildlife and ecosystems but are ineffective at stopping the fire. Photo courtesy of Kimberly Baker

The Environmental Protection Information Center (EPIC) is suing the U.S. Forest Service for approving a series of timber sales on the Mendocino National Forest that shortcut public participation and environmental review in violation of federal law. In a complaint filed today, EPIC alleges that the Forest Service expedited seven timber sales, totaling up to 7,000 acres, by mislabeling the logging as a “road maintenance” project. At risk from the logging are clean water, northern spotted owls, and increased fuel conditions.

All Forest Service timber sales are subject to the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA). The core of NEPA is a requirement that agencies take a “hard look” at the environmental impacts of their proposed actions, typically done through an environmental impact statement or environmental analysis. The timber sales were approved using what is called a “categorical exclusion.” Categorical exclusions do not require environmental impact review or public comment.

Unnecessary bulldozer line the fire never reached fragments intact wildlands. Photo Courtesy of Kimberly Baker.

Here, the Forest Service argues that a commercial timber sale is “road maintenance” because the logging would remove dead and live trees affected by the 2018 Ranch Fire along roads, reducing the odds that the trees may fall and block the road. A separate categorical exclusion exists for post-fire logging, although that is limited to 250 acres, as anything larger in scale is assumed to be able to produce significant impacts to the environment. All timber sales in this proposed project are larger than 250 acres. Furthermore, many of the roads proposed for logging are closed to motor vehicle use.

“The Mendocino National Forest is taking a page from Trump’s playbook,” said Tom Wheeler, Executive Director of EPIC. “Calling a timber sale ‘road maintenance’ is a stunning way to stifle public participation and ignore environmental impacts.”

Science has widely recognized that post-fire logging is especially impactful, as logging adds an additional disturbance on top of the effects of the fire. Post-fire logging often results in degraded water quality, the spread of invasive plants, and loss of habitat for rare, threatened and endangered species. It can also increase the risk of high-severity fire since logging leaves behind a buildup of slash and finer “fuels.” If allowed to use a categorical exclusion instead of an environmental impact statement, these impacts may never be adequately examined and mitigation measures to reduce harm through better project design would not be incorporated.

“This is a massive project covering thousands of acres,” asserted EPIC’s Public Land Advocate, Kimberly Baker, “the Mendocino National Forest is breaking the law to meet timber targets and benefit timber corporations at a cost to fragile post-fire watersheds and threatened species. Public safety could be achieved in a more benign manner.”

EPIC is represented by René Voss of Natural Resources Law and Matt Kenna of Public Interest Environmental Law. The case will be heard in the Northern District Court of California.

To carry out this legal challenge to preserve owl habitat, clean water, fire resilient landscapes and our right to participate in public land management decisions, we need to raise substantial funding. Please help us see this case through by making a substantial donation today.

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State Court Victory in Richardson Grove Case!

Tuesday, June 11th, 2019
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Decision Finds Agency Avoided Public Comment and Scrutiny on Risks

Humboldt County Superior Court Judge Kelly Neel ruled in favor of environmental plaintiffs in the latest salvo in the nearly decade-long effort to prevent the widening of Highway 101 through old-growth redwoods at Richardson Grove State Park. As a result of this court decision, Caltrans is not allowed to physically alter the proposed project area and the agency would need to get court approval before moving forward. Plaintiffs include the Environmental Protection Information Center, Center for Biological Diversity, Californians for Alternatives to Toxics, Friends of Del Norte and four private citizens, Bess Bair, Trisha Lee Lotus, Jeffrey Hedin, and David Spreen. Plaintiffs Bair and Lotus both have generational family ties to the creation of the Park.

In her decision, Judge Neel found that Caltrans avoided public scrutiny by failing to solicit public comment on a significant piece of new information—a report from an arborist hired by Caltrans. In doing so, Judge Neel highlighted that the public and other agencies were deprived of their right to provide comment and feedback, something “essential” to the law.

“Caltrans has continued to view public opinion and opposition to the Richardson Grove Project as something that they can bulldoze through,” said Tom Wheeler, Executive Director at the Environmental Protection Information Center. “Four times, courts have returned the project to the agency, finding that their slapdash work violates the law.”

Peter Galvin, Co-Founder of the Center for Biological Diversity stated, “We urge Caltrans to finally abandon their deeply misguided and destructive plan to widen Highway 101 through Richardson Grove State Park. Our ancient redwood trees are too important to pave over.”

In 2010, Caltrans issued its Final Environmental Impact Report for the Richardson Grove Operational Improvement Project. In 2014, the First District Court of Appeals found that Caltrans had violated CEQA by failing to take a hard look at the project’s impacts to old-growth redwoods. After this decision, Caltrans attempted to cure its deficiency by hiring an arborist to examine project impacts. The arborist’s report, which presented new scientific data, including an untested rating system to predict impacts to tree health from project activities, was shielded from public comment through its release as part of an “Addendum” to the original CEQA documents. This added significant new information to the EIR without providing public notice and consultation with agencies.

The Court stated that “the rating system devised by the arborist may or may not rest on sound scientific footing. Without review and critique by others with expertise in the relevant fields, this footing remains untested. Peer review is essential to sound science.”

Plaintiffs are represented by Sharon Duggan, Stuart Gross of Gross & Klein LLP, Philip Gregory of Gregory Law Group, and Camilo Artiga-Purcell of Artiga-Purcell Law Office.

Background

Richardson Grove State Park, is considered the gateway to the Redwoods, where tourists often first encounter large Redwoods when heading north on Highway 101. It is home to one of the last protected stands of accessible old-growth redwood trees in the world. The park has essential habitat for protected species and its creeks support runs of imperiled salmon and steelhead trout.

Litigation against the Richardson Grove project has been successful in both state and federal court. Most recently, in 2019, Judge Alsup of the Northern District District Court of California rules in favor of plaintiffs, finding that Caltrans failed to take a hard look at the impacts to oldgrowth redwoods under federal law.