LOS ANGELES – A Trump administration-approved logging project in Los Padres National Forest will destroy habitat for endangered California condors and elevate wildfire risks for local communities, conservation groups say in a federal lawsuit filed Wednesday.
The U.S. Forest Service approved logging 1,000 acres of large-diameter trees along the Tecuya Ridge in the San Emigdio Mountains in April, finding the project is excluded from review under the National Environmental Policy Act.
Los Padres ForestWatch, Earth Island Institute and the Center for Biological Diversity claim the federal agency violated the law by pushing forward with logging projects without proper environmental review and in spite of “widespread” community pushback.
A June petition asking the Forest Service to halt the project was signed by 275 local residents, the groups say, adding 98% of the public comments submitted to the agency regarding the project were opposed to commercial logging and shoddy environmental review.
The 23-page lawsuit, filed in the Central District of California, claims federal law limits logging in remote areas – like the rugged Antimony Roadless Area in Los Padres – to small trees only.
Those restrictions were put in place after studies showed maintaining larger, fire-resistant trees greatly reduced the risk of high-intensity blazes.
Chad Hanson of plaintiff Earth Island Institute’s John Muir Project said federal agencies should focus on helping residents fireproof their homes and improve early warning and evacuation systems.
“Logging old-growth trees in remote forests will not protect homes from fire,” Hanson said in a statement. “In fact, it’s a dangerous distraction.”
Justin Augustine of the Center for Biological Diversity said the project will increase threats of intense blazes by cutting down large, flame-resistant trees.
“The Forest Service should be helping people make their properties fire safe instead of logging wildlife habitat in a beautiful national forest,” Augustine, who represents the groups in the action, said in a statement.
The law requires federal agencies to consider alternatives to logging and to draw up plans for creating buffer spaces between communities and areas at risk of wildfires, the plaintiffs say.
At least 50 roost sites for California condors – typically large conifer and pinyon-juniper trees used as overnight rest stops during long flights – would be affected by the Tecuya project, according to U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service data.
But federal agencies have side-stepped requirements for half-mile buffers between condor roost sites and commercial logging activity, the plaintiffs say.
“There is simply no place for commercial logging in California condor country,” Bryant Baker of Los Padres ForestWatch said in a statement.
Neither the Forest Service nor U.S. Fish and Wildlife, also a defendant, returned requests for comment about the projects or the condors habitat.
The conservation groups seek a court order overturning approval of the Tecuya project and a finding that the federal agencies violated the law.
— By Martin Macias Jr.