Ninth Circuit Once Again Rules in Favor of Tecuya Ridge Shaded Fuelbreak Project on Los Padres National Forest

An effort to reduce wildfire risks on the Los Padres National Forest and protect nearby communities can proceed after the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals today ruled in favor of the U.S. Forest Service’s Tecuya Ridge Shaded Fuelbreak Project located above Frazier Park, California.

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 participated in the litigation as defendant-intervenors to help defend the Forest Service’s much needed shaded fuelbreak project.

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 thinning.  Its purpose is to reduce wildfire risk, slow the speed of wildfire, provide safe and effective locations for fire suppression efforts, and reduce the potential for loss of life, property, and natural resources.

In the first round of litigation, anti-forestry groups 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, and the groups appealed the ruling to the Ninth Circuit.  In February 2022, the Ninth Circuit determined the Forest Service had properly used the categorical exclusion to develop the project, but had failed to explain how the project fit within the Roadless Rule’s exception that allows for the removal of “generally small diameter timber.”

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 to Forest Service for further analysis.  The Los Padres National Forest 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.

Today, the Ninth Circuit agreed.  The court found that the Forest Service “adequately explained its determination that trees up to 21 inches dbh constitute ‘generally small diameter timber’ in the project area” and its reliance on the growth potential for the Jeffrey Pine as a benchmark was not arbitrary and capricious.

“We are so pleased to see this favorable ruling from the Ninth Circuit and that the Tecuya Ridge Project can finally move forward after being held up in litigation for five years,” said AFRC General Counsel Sara Ghafouri.  “Intervenors supported this predominately non-commercial project because it will help increase the forest’s resilience to insect and disease infestations and protect the nearby communities in the Wildland Urban Interface, with approximately 3,800 homes at risk.  It is important for the Forest Service to be able to rely on this Roadless Rule exception to help protect WUI communities that are at risk of catastrophic wildfire events.”