An effort to reduce wildfire risks on the Los Padres National Forest and protect nearby communities can proceed after U.S. District Court Judge Virginia Phillips today ruled in favor of the U.S. Forest Service’s Tecuya Ridge Shaded Fuelbreak Project above Frazier Park, Calif.
The Tecuya Project has been tied up in federal courts for the past several years. Throughout the process the American Forest Resource Council (AFRC), California Forestry Association and Associated California Loggers have intervened in litigation to defend the Forest Service.
The project consists of 1,626 acres identified by the Mt. Pinos Community Wildfire Protection Plan and the Los Padres National Forest Strategic Fuelbreak Assessment as priority areas for wildfire mitigation treatments including mechanical thinning. Its purpose is to provide safe and effective locations for fire suppression efforts, slow the speed of wildfire, and reduce the potential for loss of life, property, and natural resources.
“The Tecuya Ridge Project authorizes thinning activities to create a much-needed shaded fuelbreak that will help increase the forest’s resilience to insect and disease infestations and protect the nearby communities in the Wildland Urban Interface,” said AFRC General Counsel Sara Ghafouri. “We have supported the Forest Service’s efforts to move the project forward given that this fuelbreak seeks to protect almost 3,800 homes and was prioritized and ranked second out of the 35 fuelbreaks evaluated during the Los Padres National Forest’s strategic review.”
In developing the project, anti-forestry groups had claimed the Forest Service illegally relied on a “timber stand and/or wildlife habitat improvement” categorical exclusion under the National Environmental Policy Act, failed to assess impacts to the California condor, and violated the Clinton-era 2001 Roadless Area Conservation Rule (Roadless Rule).
U.S. Magistrate Judge Walsh rejected those claims in August 2020, though the groups later appealed the ruling to the U.S. Ninth Circuit. In February 2020, a Ninth Circuit panel determined the Forest Service had properly used the categorical exclusion to develop the project, but had failed to document and explain how the project fit within an exception the agency is using to harvest timber under the Roadless Rule.
Under the Roadless Rule, timber harvest may occur in inventoried roadless areas if the Forest Service determines that “[t]he cutting, sale, or removal of generally small diameter timber is needed” to “reduce the risk of uncharacteristic wildfire effects” and “will maintain or improve one or more of the roadless area characteristics.”
The Ninth Circuit remanded the project back Forest Service for further analysis. The Los Padres National Forest later issued a revised Decision Memo with additional analysis to address the Ninth Circuit’s ruling on treatment in the roadless area. Despite efforts by opponents to derail the project in court once again, Judge Phillips ruled the agency complied with the Ninth Circuit’s remand order.
“We are pleased Judge Phillips ruled in favor of this project allowing public land managers to implement this project to improve the health of these forests, while helping to protect local communities from wildfire,” Ghafouri said. “As California continues to face severe and devastating wildfires, it is important for public agencies to quickly take action to mitigate these extreme risks to people, homes and our public lands.”