Bush Plan to Log Giant Sequoia Monument Ruled Illegal

SAN FRANCISCO, California, August 23, 2006 (ENS) - The Bush administration's plan to allow commercial logging in California's Giant Sequoia National Monument is illegal, a federal judge ruled Tuesday in two companion cases - one brought by the state of California and the other brought by conservation groups.

"The Forest Service's interest in harvesting timber has trampled the applicable environmental laws," wrote Judge Charles Breyer of the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California, ruling in the conservation groups' case.

Complaints against the U.S. Forest Service were brought by the Sierra Club, Sierra Nevada Forest Protection Campaign, Earth Island Institute, Tule River Conservancy, Sequoia Forest Keeper, and Center for Biological Diversity, and in separate suit filed by the California Attorney General.

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Found only in California's Sierra Nevada mountains, Giant sequoias can live as long as 3,000 years. (Photo credit unknown)
Judge Breyer found that the "Monument Plan is decidedly incomprehensible" and "lacks coherent or clear guidance" on how the unique ecological resources of the Monument, including numerous sequoia groves and old forest dependent species, would be managed.

In addition to ruling that the Forest Service's overall management plan for the monument is illegal, Judge Breyer invalidated several individual timber sales inside and adjacent to the monument because of their potential impact on endangered wildlife.

"The court recognized that the Forest Service's business as usual approach to managing the Giant Sequoia National Monument was indefensible, especially given the magnificent resources at risk," said George Torgun, an attorney from Earthjustice who served as co-counsel in the case. "Protecting the Monument is essential so that future generations of Americans can experience this national treasure."

California Attorney General Bill Lockyer said, "Today's court ruling is a resounding victory for the Giant Sequoias, towering treasures that symbolize the magnificent beauty of California's Sierra Nevada range and inspire awe in all of us."

"The ruling also is a resounding defeat for the Bush administration, which aggressively sought to unravel the protections guarding John Muir's big trees," Lockyer said. "We simply cannot afford to sacrifice for short term gain majestic sequoias that have stood for centuries. Today's ruling helps ensure these state gems will be standing for generations to come."

On April 15, 2000, at the Trail of 100 Giants on the Sequoia National Forest, President Bill Clinton announced the creation of the Giant Sequoia National Monument. The 328,000 acre area is intended to protect 38 groves of these giant sequoia trees, found only on the west slope of the Sierra Nevada.

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President Bill Clinton signs the Giant Sequoia National Monument proclamation in Sequoia National Forest, California, April 15, 2000. (Photo courtesy GPO)
The species has existed for at least 20 million years and individual trees can live to be 3,000 years old, grow taller than 270 feet and reach diameters of 30 feet.

The Giant Sequoia National Monument encompasses 38 sequoia groves, 1,000 miles of trails, including three national trails, four stretches of wild and scenic rivers, and more than 50 developed campgrounds, including 144 campsites located in the groves.

Lockyer in 2005 filed a lawsuit against the Bush administration's Giant Sequoia National Monument Management Plan, which allowed an annual timber harvest of at least 7.5 million board feet, enough to fill 1,500 logging trucks each year. This policy would have included logging of healthy trees of any species as big as 30 inches in diameter or more. Trees that size can be 300 years old.

Lockyer's lawsuit challenged the Bush Plan for violating the April 2000 proclamation by President Bill Clinton that established the Monument. The proclamation prohibited tree removal in the covered forest land unless "clearly needed" to protect the ecology or public safety.

The suit also alleged the Bush plan violated the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA), which requires agencies to evaluate the potential environmental impacts of a management decision before the decision gets made and irreversible consequences occur. NEPA also requires written plans to be clear and comprehensible to the public, and the lawsuit alleged the Bush plan was incomprehensible and unclearly incorporated parts of other plans.

The court agreed with Lockyer and with the conservation groups that the Forest Service's plan violated NEPA. Judge Breyer wrote, "The Court concludes that the Forest Service failed to comply with NEPA in preparing a management plan for the Grand Sequoia National Monument as required by the Presidential Proclamation."

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A grove of giant sequoias in the Sierra Nevada (Photo courtesy Sierra Club)
In barring timber production, the Clinton proclamation provides the affected forests needed to be restored to help them recover from "a century of fire suppression and logging" that not only virtually destroyed entire forests, but also increased the wildfire hazard.

In 2005, the Bush administration officially reversed those policies by finalizing plans to allow what amounts to commercial logging in the monument, even inside the prized Giant Sequoia groves.

As a model for better management, the conservation groups urged the Bush administration to look to nearby Sequoia National Park, where innovative conservation and fire prevention strategies have reinvigorated the Sequoia groves and made nearby communities safer. Unlike the Forest Service, which has proposed selling timber contracts to log healthy trees, the National Park Service uses prescribed burning and thinning of smaller, more flammable trees and brush.

"The plan proposed by the Forest Service ignores the clear recommendations of its own fire scientists that fire risk reduction is not about logging large trees," stated Craig Thomas, director of the Sierra Nevada Forest Protection Campaign.

"The American people are looking to their government to protect these forests forever as a National Monument, not as a tree farm," stated Carla Cloer of the Tule River Conservancy. "Logging the Sequoia National Monument is just as unacceptable as selling the Statue of Liberty for scrap metal."

In his comment on the court's decision, Attorney General Lockyer quotes the present President Bush's father, the former President George H.W. Bush.

In his 1992 presidential proclamation that launched the effort to preserve the Giant Sequoias, the former President Bush observed, "For centuries, groves of the Giant Sequoia have stimulated the interest and wonder of those who behold them. The Giant Sequoia is a tree that inspires emotion like no other and has mystically entered the hearts of humanity everywhere."

Another major legal challenge filed by Lockyer against the Bush administration's forest policies, a lawsuit against the 2004 Sierra Nevada Framework plan, remains pending in court.