Wildfire recovery efforts often lead to court battles

Issue Date: September 24, 2014
By Kate Campbell

As heroic wildfire fights persist across the state, recovery from last year's catastrophic forest fires continues—and the fight to restore watersheds, landscapes, lost homes and livelihoods affected by the 2013 Rim Fire in the Stanislaus National Forest has now shifted to the courtroom.

Almost immediately after the Stanislaus forest supervisor issued a Rim Fire recovery plan last month, environmental groups went to court to prevent certain portions of it from being implemented. Specifically, the groups wanted to block plans for salvage logging on 15,000 acres of the 260,000 acres affected by the fire.

Three environmental groups, including the Arizona-based Center for Biological Diversity, filed a motion for a temporary restraining order to stop the logging. But that motion was denied by a judge last week.

"While it remains to be seen whether the court will grant the plaintiffs' request for a preliminary injunction, this is a significant legal decision for the U.S. Forest Service," said Mark Rentz of Sacramento-based Integrated Natural Resources Management.

Rentz said the ruling "also represents a win for local economies, supports efforts to restore the ecosystems impacted by the fire, and acknowledges the work of Yosemite Stanislaus Solutions," which he described as a coalition of environmental groups, forest-products companies, ranchers, community businesses, and county, state and federal agencies.

The court's denial of the restraining order, Rentz said, "clearly indicates collaborative efforts and integrated resource management strategies as being encouraged and as having a positive impact on project certainty, conflict resolution and economic viability."

As disastrous wildfires become more common, Rayne Thompson, California Farm Bureau Federation Federal Policy Division manager, said there is growing need for collaboration among conservation, forestry and farm groups to restore forest areas following a fire as quickly as possible.

"Allowing restoration activities to remove dead trees and clear brush allows new tree growth, and provides economic development for the many rural communities struggling to recover," Thompson said. "Innovative partnerships are developing, because the way we've managed our forests in the past and the way we've approached recovery from these continuing disasters has not always worked effectively."

With the catastrophic King Fire burning in the American River Canyon in El Dorado and Placer counties, and with recovery efforts just beginning in the wake of the Boles Fire that destroyed 150 homes in the Siskiyou County community of Weed, experts say the need for collaboration in recovery efforts has never been greater.

But, last Friday, environmental groups filed another motion—a request for preliminary injunction—to stop recovery logging in the Rim Fire area in Tuolumne County. A hearing has been set in federal court in Sacramento for Oct. 1, and legal experts anticipate a lengthy court process.

"Wildfires can not only cause devastating losses of life and to private and public property as well as natural resources, they can also trigger legal actions that hinder recovery and harm the environment in the long run," Thompson said. "We need to find ways to help families and forests recover. Obstructing those efforts through the courts may not be the most helpful approach."

(Kate Campbell is an assistant editor of Ag Alert. She may be contacted at kcampbell@cfbf.com.)

Permission for use is granted, however, credit must be made to the California Farm Bureau Federation when reprinting this item.

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