Backing up an earlier ruling by a Sacramento judge, a federal appellate court has rejected a challenge to the U.S. Forest Service's effort to reduce the risk of the disastrous 2007 Angora fire near South Lake Tahoe from reoccurring.
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 defined by federal law.
The opinion was written 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 the abundance of fuel for any future fires.
The thinning project called for the removal of both live and dead trees.
An area was "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," according to papers Forest Service attorneys filed in court.
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.