USFS wins suit over forest thinning plan

Tecuya Ridge in the San Emigdio Mountans near the Ventura/Kern County line. Photo by Bryant Baker-Los Padres ForestWatch.

Lawyers representing the U.S. Forest Service have won a round in court in a lawsuit by several environmental groups over a plan to cut down trees along a mountain ridge just north of the Ventura County line.

Officials with the Los Padres National Forest’s Mt. Pinos Ranger District said the Tecuya Ridge Shaded Fuelbreak Project is an effort to prevent wildfires from reaching communities such as Pine Mountain Club, which sits in the shadow of the mountaintop project area.

After the project was approved in 2019, a lawsuit was filed by several environmental groups including Los Padres ForestWatch, Earth Island Institute and the Center for Biological Diversity. ForestWatch Executive Director Jeff Kuyper told the Ventura County Reporter that over 600 comments were submitted on the proposal, with most in opposition.

“The main concern that folks have had with this project since day one is that the Forest Service approved it using a loophole that allowed the agency to essentially fast-track the project, approve it as quickly as possible, and conduct the bare minimum environmental analysis of the project,” Kuyper said. “We’re talking about cutting large trees in remote areas in mature and old growth forests. We think projects like that deserve more scrutiny, especially in situations like this, where there’s a lot of public controversy over the proposal.”

Forest Service spokesperson Andrew Madsen told the Ventura County Reporter that there is widespread support of the forest-thinning project among people who live nearby.

“With fire suppression over the last century, a warming climate and more homes being built in wildland areas, there’s a greater need to protect the communities as well as to take steps to keep fires smaller so that we’re also protecting our firefighters when they’re out there on the ground doing direct suppression,” Madsen said.

After the environmental groups filed their lawsuit, a U.S. District Court judge sided with the forest service in 2020, but that decision was appealed to the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals, Kuyper said. “In February of this year, the Ninth Circuit ruled that the portion of the project that was inside a roadless area was approved in a way that did not comply with federal regulations called the Roadless Area Conservation Rule. And so it was sent back to the district court for further consideration. And that is what prompted this most recent ruling from the district court that the forest service is gleefully advertising, that the district court now believes that with the additional explanation that the forest service provided, the project does now comply with the roadless rule.”

Kuyper said in a prepared statement that ForestWatch and the leaders of the other environmental groups are currently weighing their legal options and may seek another appeal. “Our organizations are committed to ensuring an outcome that protects our forests and prioritizes the most effective strategies to safeguard our communities. Logging in remote areas without appropriate environmental safeguards is a recipe for disaster, and whenever the Forest Service cuts corners at the expense of sound science and public transparency, we’re prepared to meet them at the courtroom doorstep every single time.”

Forest service officials said in a news release that the 1,626-acre project should commence next year. Los Padres Forest Supervisor Chris Stubbs said he’s happy with the latest court ruling that could clear the way for the project which he described as having been “tied up in federal litigation for the last three years.”

“This is another victory for forest health and for the people who live adjacent to Los Padres National Forest,” Stubbs said. “I’m concerned about losing our Southern California forests while we battle litigation in court. Selective thinning enables us to protect our forests from the effects of catastrophic wildfire.”

Forest officials said their position was backed by the American Forest Resource Council, California Forestry Association and Associated California Loggers as well as the Kern County Fire Department, which has advocated for the project since it was first identified within the Mt. Pinos Communities Wildfire Protection Plan in 2009.

The lawsuit over the Tecuya Ridge project is separate from another legal battle over a Forest Service plan to cut down trees on Pine Mountain located about 20 miles southwest of Tecuya Ridge. That lawsuit is still in the early stages and parties will be submitting legal arguments to a judge next year, Kuyper said.

According to Madsen, work on Tecuya Ridge will be performed mostly by contractors and should cost about $1 million, and that not all the trees in the project area will be cut down.

“So when a wildfire does come through the area, it’s much, much less intense. The flame lengths are confined to the ground as opposed to getting crown fires,” Madsen said. “This effort is part of what is happening nationwide, across national forests. Congress has invested additional money to fund this work. And it’s also occurring right alongside our state, municipal and county partners. And so the Tecuya Ridge project is long overdue.”