RENO — A federal appeals court cleared the way Monday for the Forest Service to start logging near Lake Tahoe, where a wildfire burned more than 250 homes four years ago.
In making its ruling, a three-judge panel of the 9th Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals in San Francisco rejected claims that the project violates environmental laws and will jeopardize the survival of a rare woodpecker.
The panel issued a two-page ruling denying an emergency injunction sought by two environmental groups.
The panel, including Chief Judge Alex Kozinski, gave no reason for its decision.
They said they will give the Earth Island Institute and Center for Biological Diversity until Oct. 3 to submit formal briefs so the case can be considered on a normal schedule in November.
Chad Hanson, executive director of the institute’s Sierra-based John Muir Project, said the group would continue to challenge the logging even if it is completed by November because an important precedent is at stake.
He said the argument by the Forest Service that it has no legal requirement to maintain a viable population of the black-backed woodpecker in the national forest at Lake Tahoe contradicts every previous administration’s interpretation of the National Forest Management Act dating to 1982.
“The black-backed woodpecker is one of the rarest bird species in the entire Sierra Nevada, and the Forest Service is pushing it toward extinction with its post-fire logging program,” Hanson said .
Forest Service officials say the logging of about half of the 3,000 acres that burned in June 2007 is part of an overall restoration project that will help speed regrowth of burned stands and reduce the threat of future catastrophic fires.
The $3 million project is not intended to produce any merchantable timber, only chips and scrap wood for biomass.
The opponents counter that they have no problem with cutting trees with a diameter of less than 10 inches, but the agency’s plan to log some trees nearly 2-feet thick and to remove dead standing trees that the woodpeckers thrive on will do nothing to reduce fire threats. They say the forest should be left to regenerate on its own.
Forest Service spokeswoman Cheva Heck said in an email on Monday that agency officials could not comment on the ruling because the case is still in litigation, but she confirmed “we are continuing with plans to move ahead with the restoration project this week.”
Lawyers for the agency said in legal briefs filed last week they don’t think the woodpecker will be harmed by the logging. They said U.S. District Court Judge Garland Burrell Jr. made it clear that he agreed with their interpretation in his July 13 ruling in Sacramento denying a similar injunction.