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Groups Sue Over Logging In Sierra Nevada Fire Areas

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Black-backed woodpecker | Photo: Denis Fournier/Flickr/Creative Commons License

Plans to log over 5,000 acres of burned trees in the Tahoe and Sierra national forests poses a serious threat to wildlife that depends on burned over forests. That's according to two environmental groups that sued the U.S. Forest Service Thursday to stop the cut.

The lawsuit, filed in federal District Court in San Francisco by the Center for Biological Diversity (CBD) and Earth Island Institute, charges that the Forest Service's plans to allow "salvage" timber cutting on land burned in two fires in summer 2013 will actually damage some of the Sierra Nevada's rarest habitat.

That would pose a serious risk to wildlife that depends on burned forest habitat, such as the black-backed woodpecker and California spotted owl, the groups charge.

(In the interests of full disclosure, I should note that I was on the payroll of plaintiff Earth Island Institute, where I worked as editor of the group's quarterly Journal, from 1998 through 2008.)

"These public lands that the Forest Service plans to log are homes for many birds and other animals, and they should be left that way," said Center Attorney Justin Augustine. "The burned trees and the post-fire shrubs give these animals nesting and denning areas, as well as prolific amounts of food that many species rely on. If these places are logged, all that will remain is a sea of stumps."

The logging plans are centered on forest lands burned in the 22,350-acre Aspen Fire, which burned in the Sierra National Forest near Huntington Lake last summer, and the 27,440-acre American Fire, which blazed the next month in a remote area about 15 miles south of Interstate 80 in the Tahoe National Forest.

Both fires burned in patches that left significant sections of uninjured trees, as well as trees injured by fire that provide habitat for wildlife. A century of logging after fire means that this "complex early seral forest" has become of the rarest habitat types in the Sierra Nevada, despite its being as important in an ecological sense as undamaged old-growth forest.

This isn't the first environmental challenge to logging in burned-over sections of the Sierra: we reported on a similar issue involving the site of the gigantic Rim Fire early in January.

At special risk from loss of complex early seral habitat is the black-backed woodpecker, Picoides arcticus, which makes its living drilling into recently burned conifers to feed on the borer insects that attack those same injured trees. Without that rather specialized food source, and the shelter the woodpeckers obtain by carving dens into burned tree trunks, the black-backeds have trouble surviving.

Though the black-backed woodpecker was recently a candidate for listing as either endangered or threatened under the California Endangered Species Act, that listing was declined in 2013. Part of the rationale for not listing the woodpecker was that the state's Department of Fish and Wildlife expects more fires, and thus more potential black-backed habitat, as a result of climate change. CBD and Earth Island's John Muir Project countered that climate change could as easily mean a wetter Sierra Nevada with fewer fires, that new fires might well be out of the preferred altitudinal range of the bird, and that none of that new habitat would help if the Forest Service logged it.

The Forest Service derives a significant portion of its budget from timber sales, and Earth Island's Chad Hanson charges that the potential income from the American and Apsen fire lands has colored the agency's scientific judgment.

"The Forest Service is proposing to essentially clearcut thousands of acres of the rarest and most important wildlife habitat on our national forests in order to pad their own budget," said Hanson. "What the Forest Service is doing here is every bit as ecologically destructive as clearcutting thousands of acres of old-growth forest."

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