A federal appeals court ruled Friday that a controversial blueprint for managing national forests in the Sierra Nevada was flawed because the U.S. Forest Service didn't adequately assess how fish would be affected by increases in logging and road building.
The 9th Circuit Court of Appeals decision is the latest step in a legal battle over changes the Bush administration made to guidelines for the 11 national forests that run the length of the range.
Amendments to a Clinton-era plan ramped up logging levels in the Sierra, allowed more road construction and weakened restrictions on grazing — all practices that affect water quality and fish habitat.
"In the same way the water in the Sierra is used by millions of people, it's also the water resource that fish require all the way down to the ocean," said Chris Frissell of the Pacific Rivers Council, which sued the Forest Service.
"Our main objective is not to stop a bunch of projects," Frissell said. "Our goal has been to raise the bar for how the Forest Service treats water resources and fisheries."
A three-judge panel voted 2 to 1 to send the case back to district court for a decision on steps the agency must now take. Rulings in other lawsuits are forcing the Forest Service to redo other parts of its environmental analysis for the guidelines, which remain in effect. The agency said it was reviewing Friday's opinion and had no comment.
The original Sierra plan, adopted in 2001 after years of study, was intended to stem declines in wildlife and the overall ecological health of the famous mountain range. The plan protected old growth trees, slashed logging levels, enlarged buffer zones to protect streams and barred livestock grazing in certain meadows during the breeding season of the Yosemite toad.
Timber and ranching interests complained that the plan was locking up forest resources. The Bush administration, intent on opening public lands to more development, revised the guidelines extensively in 2004.
The revisions allow the harvesting of larger trees and logging on more acreage. Also, the volume of board feet that could be cut during the first decades of the plan was substantially increased. Environmental groups and the state of California challenged the amendments, setting in motion a legal battle that is not yet over.
"We expect the court will issue an injunction that addresses the now indisputable decline in Sierra wildlife," said Earthjustice attorney Greg Loarie, who represents environmental groups in one of the other cases.
Although logging in the range has risen from levels early in the last decade, it has not reached the amount allowed under the 2004 amendments. One reason is that the housing bust reduced lumber demand. Steve Brink of the California Forestry Assn. said another factor is that the Forest Service says it doesn't have enough staff and funding to oversee more timber sales.
This week, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack announced that the Forest Service would step up the pace of thinning projects to reduce the wildfire hazard and improve forest health. As a result, the amount of wood cut nationally, including in California, should increase.