The American Forest Resource Council (AFRC) applauds a federal court’s May 17 decision allowing the U.S. Forest Service to proceed with the long-delayed Pettijohn Late Successional Reserve Habitat Improvement and Fuels Reduction Project on the Shasta-Trinity National Forest near Weaverville, CA.
AFRC intervened to defend the project in the U.S. District Court, Eastern District of California, to prevent further unnecessary delay. Pettijohn was initially developed in 2012 to improve forest health, mitigate wildfire risks and provide timber to support local communities.
Pettijohn encompasses approximately 13,162 acres of Shasta-Trinity National Forest and includes 774 acres of thinning to promote the health and vitality of forest lands designated as “Late Successional Reserve” under the Northwest Forest Plan. To protect firefighters and nearby communities from the risks of catastrophic wildfire, the project will also conduct fuel treatments on 2,926 acres.
After the project was developed, the Fish & Wildlife Service issued its illegal 2012 critical habitat rule for northern spotted owl, which AFRC says designated huge swaths of forest that are not actually habitat. Anti-forestry groups took advantage and brought several claims against the project in 2013, resulting in a six-year stay as federal agencies reinitiated wildlife consultations under the Endangered Species Act. After the stay was lifted in July 2019, the groups renewed their attempt to stop the project.
This latest attempt was rejected on Monday by U.S. District Court Judge John A. Mendez, who ruled in favor of the Forest Service, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, and AFRC.
“Plaintiffs go to great lengths to challenge different aspects of the Forest Service’s analyses of wildfires and tree removal and their effects on spotted owl habitat and greenhouse gas emissions, but in doing so, they miss the forest for the trees. So long as the Forest Service considered the relevant factors and articulated a rational connection between the facts found and choices made, the Court must uphold the agency decision,” Judge Mendez wrote.
“We are pleased with Judge Mendez’s decision to allow this project to proceed, because forest health threats have only increased since the project was proposed nearly a decade ago,” said AFRC General Counsel Lawson Fite. “Thinning these overstocked forests will help provide safe and effective locations for fire suppression efforts, and prevent landscape-level insect and disease outbreaks, and support the development of healthy old-growth forests. Just as importantly, the project would provide wood fiber to benefit local jobs and the economy.
“These delays were an unfortunate result of the Fish & Wildlife Service’s overreach in 2012, which has been partially corrected by the 2021 rule issued on January 15. We urge the Biden Administration to implement the 2021 rule without delay.”
The plaintiff groups have 60 days to initiate an appeal to the United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit.