The U.S. Forest Service has been attempting to thin a 13,162-acre patch of forest in the Shasta-Trinity National Forest for 13 years. The project, dubbed the Pettijohn Late Successional Reserve Habitat Improvement and Fuels Reduction Project, is aimed at improving forest health and reduce fuels in the area northeast Weaverville.
The reason it has taken 13 years of litigation to move forward with this project? The northern spotted owl.
The project was delayed following Fish & Wildlife Service’s 2012 critical habitat rule for northern spotted owl, which the The American Forest Resource Council called “illegal.” Since that rule was brought forth, anti-forestry groups, including the Conservation Congress and the Citizens for Better Forestry, have kept the project deadlocked in the court system. Finally, on May 17, the U.S. District Court approved the forest thinning project to move forward in Trinity County.
“Plaintiffs go to great lengths to challenge different aspects of the Forest Service’s analyses of wildfires and tree removal and their effects on spotted owl habitat and greenhouse gas emissions, but in doing so, they miss the forest for the trees. So long as the Forest Service considered the relevant factors and articulated a rational connection between the facts found and choices made, the Court must uphold the agency decision,” Judge Mendez wrote.
Last year saw California’s most devastating wildfire season – one that burnt 4,397,809 acres, destroyed 10,488 buildings and killed 31 people. So why are will still doing this? Why are we litigating these small environmental situations when there are lives on the line? How many lives have to be destroyed until we learn our lesson?
Let me be very clear – I typically side with wildlife conservationists. I publicly opposed the killing of Tule elk in Point Reyes National Seashore. I publicly opposed raising Shasta Dam, even though I’ve heard some very compelling arguments supporting it. I’ve even supported wolf conservation in California, which is VERY controversial. But this northern spotted owl protection has simply gone too far.
(For the record, I also believe that climate change is a significant factor in these wildfires, but I don’t want the two issues to dilute each other. Forest thinning is a short-term, effective approach to wildfire mitigation. Tackling climate change issues is a long-term solution.)
The plaintiff group has 60 days to initiate an appeal to the United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit, which I’m guessing they will. And as we head into what could be another devastating wildfire season in NorCal, we may not be able to perform the very tasks that could save lives. That’s a tragedy in itself.
I do believe it’s crucial to analyze every bit of forest thinning and controlled burning before it is performed, but we must also do what is right to protect the very communities that live in these areas. Native Americans have known that for thousands of years, which is why they continue to practice forest thinning throughout their wilderness.
It’s time to face the new normal we are seeing in California and change policy to reflect the wildfire dangers of our communities. Even if that’s at the expense of owls.