Ground Truth: Dispatch

FSEEE Files Lawsuit Over Massive Fireline

Last September, Forest Service officials approved a logging project that carved a 30-mile-long, 300-foot-wide swath through Washington’s North Cascade Mountains, purportedly to protect two small communities from a distant wildfire that would soon go out on its own.

In August, FSEEE filed a lawsuit alleging that the agency broke federal laws when it did so.

Public records show that managers with the Okanogan-Wenatchee National Forest decided to log the so-called “community protection line” over the strong objections of their own wildlife biologists.

Those biologists argued at the time that the project amounted to a thinly veiled logging project that would exact a severe environmental toll.

They also complained to their bosses that the massive fireline would have no impact on the lightning-sparked Wolverine Fire, which had stalled more than six miles away and would soon go out altogether due to widely forecasted rain and snow.

“This is essentially … a ground-based timber sale without any best management practices to minimize resource impacts,” fisheries biologist Cindy Raekes wrote to her superiors.

“Why don’t we STOP and THINK and PLAN?!” wrote Lauri Malmquist, a botanist with the Wenatchee River Ranger District. “There is NO emergency.”

FSEEE’s lawsuit also seeks a court order overturning an administrative rule that allows Forest Service managers to sanction major projects without conducting any comprehensive environmental review by declaring a wildfire “emergency.”

An investigation published last month in The Seattle Times found that loggers cut enough trees while clearing the Wolverine Fire community protection line to fill more than 930 logging trucks. The Forest Service sold the logs for about $770,000, most of which ended up in the agency’s Salvage Sale Fund.

The Forest Service spent about $1 million to build the line, all of which came from the agency’s firefighting budget.

FSEEE’s complaint alleges that the Forest Service violated NEPA, the National Environmental Policy Act, in approving the logging project with no formal environmental review and no opportunity for the public to comment.

As part of the project, loggers cleared more than 100 acres of habitat deemed critical for the northern spotted owl, which is listed as threatened under the Endangered Species Act.

“While logging the (community protection line), the Forest Service removed vegetation, compacted and disturbed soil, built huge piles of logging slash, and degraded the visual scenery along … forest roads used by recreationists,” the lawsuit says.

FSEEE also alleges that in logging the line, the Forest Service increased the fire risk in the region.

“This increased fire risk results from the flammable invasive weed species that (the) logging and resulting soil disturbance have encouraged and the logging slash that was left on the ground,” according to the lawsuit.

FSEEE’s lawsuit includes a 15-page declaration by Richard Haydon, an FSEEE member who lives on six acres just a few miles from the community protection line.

Haydon, who is retired, worked for 31 years for the Forest Service, mainly in wilderness and recreation management. During his Forest Service career, Haydon also worked as a firefighter and as a resource advisor and technical specialist for fire crews.

In building the line, Haydon asserts, the Forest Service increased the risk that his property will burn in a wildfire. This is due to the advance of invasive weeds, the extensive logging slash left behind, and the probability that the more open forest will allow winds to fan wildfire flames.

Haydon also alleges that the logging harms his ability to enjoy recreational pursuits in the area, including hiking, mountain biking and fishing. And, he says, loggers cut down large, old trees that had survived many previous fires.

“There was absolutely no strategic fire fighting reason for felling such large trees,” Haydon says, “and their loss in an area where they had been intentionally spared during multiple past fire fighting and logging operations is inexcusable and unjustifiable.”

FSEEE’s lawsuit seeks a court order requiring the Forest Service to mitigate the increased fire risk caused by the line’s construction by clearing the left-behind slash and combatting the spread of invasive weeds. It also calls for the Forest Service to repair environmental damage caused by the logging.

FSEEE Executive Director Andy Stahl said the Forest Service should undertake a comprehensive environmental review of high-impact firefighting tactics.

“Every year, the Forest Service knows it will log forests, bulldoze firelines and light back-burns in the name of firefighting,” Stahl said. “The Forest Service must ensure that these projects are undertaken only when absolutely necessary, and in ways that take as light a toll on public lands and waterways as possible.”