Backing up an earlier ruling by a Sacramento judge, a federal appellate court has rejected a challenge by environmentalists to the U.S. Forest Service's effort to reduce the risk of a recurrence of the disastrous Angora fire near South Lake Tahoe in 2007.
U.S. District Judge Garland E. Burrell Jr. last year tossed out a lawsuit in which Earth Island Institute and the Center for Biological Diversity claimed the Forest Service ignored the law when it "failed to take a hard look" at the impact of the Angora Fire Restoration Project on a bird species, on future fire behavior and on climate change. The agency addressed these issues "in proportion to (their) significance," Burrell declared.
In a published opinion issued Thursday, a three-judge panel of the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals said the Lake Tahoe Forest Plan did not require the Forest Service to demonstrate that the Angora project would maintain viable population levels of certain species, including the black-backed woodpecker.
The panel concluded that the Forest Service ensured the scientific integrity of the final environmental assessment, properly responded to dissenting scientific opinion, properly considered proposed alternatives to the environmental assessment, and took the requisite "hard look" at the impacts of the project.
Thus, the panel found, the Forest Service's analysis of the environmental effects "was not arbitrary and capricious," as that phrase is defined in federal law.
The opinion was authored by Circuit Judge N. Randy Smith, with the concurrences of Circuit Judges Stephen Reinhardt and Richard R. Clifton.
The Angora fire, determined to be human-caused, destroyed 254 homes and scorched more than 3,100 acres, including approximately 2,700 acres of national forest land.
In 2010, the Forest Service approved the restoration project to "reduce the amount of dead and downed trees" in order "to reduce long-term fuel (accumulation) to reduce future fire severity."
The thinning project called for the removal of both live and dead trees. Twelve zones were "retained as habitat for a diverse set of species," including the black-backed woodpecker. Most of the trees "will be hauled ... for disposal at ... biomass energy facilities."
The Forest Service was free to proceed with the project once Burrell ruled. Both he and the circuit panel denied the environmentalists' requests for an injunction halting implementation of the project pending appeal.