Environmentalists sue feds over woodpecker

February 18, 2011 12:50:17 PM PST
Environmentalists are up in arms about a federal logging project that would destroy almost 75 percent of a rare woodpecker's habitat near Lake Tahoe.

The Earth Island Institute and the Center for Biological Diversity filed a lawsuit in a California federal court last week challenging the project, which proposes to clear 1,398 acres of forest burned during the 2007 Angora Fire.

That 3,100-acre fire destroyed more than 240 homes in the Tahoe Basin and cost $11.7 million to fight.

The environmental groups say the burned forest provides habitat for a variety of fire-dependent species, including the black-backed woodpecker, which is being considered for protection under the California Endangered Species Act.

These habitats are vital for burned-forest specialists, like the woodpecker, but years of fire suppression and post-fire logging have reduced it to levels that threaten the species' existence in California.

And because people generally see burned forests as damaged or unappealing, little is done to protect them.

"If you go there in the spring, for example, once the snow melts, instead of seeing a desolate and sterile landscape, what you see is a landscape rich in wildlife," Chad Hanson, director of the Earth Island Institute's John Muir Project, told E&E Publishing. "But the land management agencies simply have not taken this into account."

The environmental groups petitioned California's Department of Fish and Game in September to list the woodpecker as endangered. A decision is expected later this year.

A forest service spokeswoman told E&E that post-fire logging is essential for reducing fuel loads in the forest.

"Without removal of some of the standing dead trees, they will fall and contribute to high amounts of fuel on the forest floor, increasing the probability that future fires would burn at high severity and making fire suppression more difficult," Cheva Heck told E&E. "In some areas, we would also thin live trees to improve the ability of the remaining live trees to resist insects, disease and drought, and reduce the risk of severe wildfire."

Recognizing the importance of burned forest to the woodpecker, the forest service decided to leave 1,168 acres untouched. They estimate that will leave enough habitat to support about 23 pairs of woodpeckers.

The environmental groups put the estimate at two to four pairs.

"I don't see how it can reduce fuel risk for the future," Justin Augustine, a Center for Biological Diversity lawyer, told E&E. "It's already burned, it's not going to burn again. There really isn't any fuel left."

Story courtesy of our media partners at California Watch (A Project of the Center for Investigative Reporting)

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