Judge Backs Forest Service Plan To Thin Fire Area

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A lawsuit attempting to quash forest thinning was thwarted recently when a federal judge ruled in favor of the U.S. Forest Service's plans to salvage millions of trees destroyed in last summer's Rodeo-Chediski fire.

The Forest Conservation Council ---- an environmental group based in New Mexico ---- filed a lawsuit in January charging the Forest Service with hot-footing three logging projects that would remove a combined 37,000 acres of charred forest in what officials deemed as high risk wildfire zones.

The council claimed that the Forest Service disregarded the National Environmental Policy Act when it chose not to conduct environmental impact reports before making decisions to thin the scorched land.

While nobody at the council was available to answer questions, John Talberth ---- the council's director ---- told the Roundup in a mid-June interview that forest thinning harms more than helps the forest.

"We have a major problem with the Forest Service's notion that the answer to fire risk out there is to aggressively cut down trees," Talberth said.

The Forest Service admitted it failed to conduct the impact reports, but said they were justified in not doing so because of certain exceptions to the rule found in the Forest Service's Handbook. One exception allows officials to skip conducting reports on small projects, such as the three it approved.

The council countered the argument and said that the exemption did not apply to the Rodeo-Chediski fire, which burned close to 470,000 acres of the Rim country.

Despite the council's arguments, U.S. District of Arizona Judge Frederick J. Martone consented to all three projects. He did agree with the council, however, that the Forest Service went too far by not conducting environmental impact reports for the third project that would remove trees from 19,364 acres within one-half mile of private property.

Martone added that even though the Forest Service overstepped its boundaries, thinning the charred forest burned by the Rodeo-Chediski is paramount.

"We take judicial notice of the fact a drought plagues Arizona and that forests are burning as we write," Martone wrote in his July 9 court order. "The Rodeo-Chediski fire burned in a mosaic pattern and it is likely that fuel for another wildfire exists even now."

While the judge ultimately approved the project, he did order the Forest Service to conduct an environmental assessment and, if necessary, an impact statement of the area within the next six months.

The Forest Service said the projects are necessary to prevent further wildfires in the area. It does not have the resources to thin the forest itself, so will rely on logging companies to do so.

The council has not yet appealed Martone's decision and it is unclear at this time whether they will.

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