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Suit Challenges Logging That Threatens Burned Forest Recovery Near Grand Canyon

Tractor Logging Will Damage Wildlife Habitat, Sensitive Soils, and Natural Forest Regeneration and Increase Fire Hazard

FLAGSTAFF, Ariz.- The Center for Biological Diversity, Sierra Club and WildEarth Guardians today sued the U.S. Forest Service and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to block a logging project slated for forests burned by the Warm Fireon the Kaibab Plateau north of the Grand Canyon in 2006. The Kaibab National Forest approved the 73 million board-foot timber sale, called the “Warm Fire Recovery Project,” in April. The deputy regional forester for the southwestern region in Albuquerque rejected the groups’ appeal on June 29.

Today’s complaint, filed in U.S. district court in Phoenix, alleges that the federal agencies violated the National Forest Management Act, National Environmental Policy Act, and Endangered Species Act in approving logging operations that will damage sensitive soils and critical wildlife habitat, impede natural forest regeneration, spread nonnative plants, and increase long-term fire hazard.

The timber sale calls for ground-based tractor logging on 9,114 acres where the Forest Service admits that soil erosion hazard is severe and invasion of non-native cheatgrass is likely to occur; re-opening 95 miles of logging roads where the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency expressed concern for watershed impacts; and removing large trees from 3,460 acres designated as critical habitat for the threatened Mexican spotted owl.

“Burned forests are naturally recovering now, and logging will irreversibly harm that recovery,” said Jay Lininger, a fire ecologist with the Center for Biological Diversity in Flagstaff. “Fire-killed trees are biological legacies that link the old forest with the new one. Logging them erodes soil and robs it of organic matter, spreads weeds, increases fire hazard, and destroys wildlife habitat that will take centuries to replace.”

The Center and Sierra Club earlier this year successfully challenged a second federal logging project on the Kaibab Plateau adjoining the Warm Fire area. The Forest Service withdrew its Jacob Ryan timber sale on May 14 admitting that its plan did not comply with protection standards for northern goshawk or account for cumulative impacts of logging approximately 30,000 acres of ponderosa pine forest together with effects of the Warm Fire and the proposed post-fire logging.

"The Forest Service continues to ignore the science that shows that burned forests are a healthy part of forest ecosystems," said John Horning, executive director of WildEarth Guardians. "The American people want our national forests to be managed for wildlife and recreational values and this logging project is wildly out of step with American values."

Logging after fire is scientifically controversial; ecologists assert that post-fire logging offers no ecological benefit, increases fuels that are most likely to burn, and harms forest recovery by disturbing burned soils where productivity is already compromised by fire. Today’s lawsuit highlights Forest Service admissions that logging will increase hazardous fuels and fire danger far above what would naturally occur for at least 20 years, and that logging will spread cheatgrass, an aggressive nonnative species that fuels very frequent fires.

Lininger, a former wildland firefighter who supported fire operations on the Kaibab during the Warm Fire, said that fire-killed trees allowed to fall naturally will rebuild soil over time at no cost to taxpayers and contribute little to fire hazard.

“Logging slash poses a much greater threat of erratic and uncontrollable fire behavior than fallen trees,” he said. “Just like a campfire, small fuels ignite easily and big fuels don’t burn well. When the Forest Service focuses the fire discussion on large logs, it is a smokescreen to justify logging.”

Logging also will cost taxpayers more than $2 million after timber sale receipts are collected, according to Forest Serviceanalysis, so the project is a loser both ecologically and economically for the American public.

“The project defies common sense and all evidence on safety, ecology, and economics,” Lininger said.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service designated portions of the Warm Fire project area as critical habitat for threatened Mexican spotted owl in 2004. Ordinarily, logging on the scale proposed would not be allowed. However, the forest and wildlife agencies claim the Warm Fire rendered the habitat nonfunctional and created a need for restoration.

Lininger disputed those claims. “Mexican spotted owls use burned forest,” he said. “Logging in critical habitat will foreclose the bird’s recovery there.”


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