Federal judge rules Forest Service must consider environmental impacts of Quincy Library Group forest plan
Implementation of the Quincy Library Group experimental forest management plan has hit another knot. Nine years after its germination, the pilot program—officially called the Herger-Feinstein Quincy Library Group Forest Protection Act—was put on notice when a federal judge ruled June 4 that he will halt work on the QLG if the U.S Forest Service ignores the potential environmental impacts of the plan as it is now designed.
The plan, which has sparked a couple of lawsuits during its formation, calls for the creation of quarter-mile-wide to half-mile-wide firebreaks within the Plumas, Lassen and parts of the Tahoe national forests. Last year, the group Californians for Alternatives to Toxics (CATs) filed suit, charging the Forest Service failed to take into consideration the fact that brush and grass will grow back in the cleared firebreaks and that spraying herbicides would be the most likely choice for maintaining the clearings.
CATs questioned how the Forest Service intended to maintain those breaks and noted that there are four options: prescribed burning, mechanical thinning, use of hand crews—nearly impossible on the forests’ steep slopes—or the use of herbicides on a massive scale, which would be both relatively cheap and easy.
Attorney Julia Olson, who represents CATs, said when the suit was filed last year that, after the logging companies come in and remove timber to create the firebreaks, it would be 10 years before the Forest Service begins to manage them. And then only 10 percent of the areas cleared will be managed, allowing time for a tremendous buildup of vegetation within the break areas.
“CATs’ concern is that the Forest Service will get into a situation where they will have to use herbicides to remove the vegetation because they won’t have the funding to remove [the vegetation] mechanically,” Olson said.
According to the Forest Service, it will cost $136.37 per acre to maintain the firebreaks. That’s a budget that allows for only herbicidal control, CATs says.
Federal Judge Lawrence K. Karlton ruled the Forest Service did not adequately follow the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) in the plan’s final environmental-impact statement and ordered it to write a supplemental statement by Oct. 2 and then put the statement out for public comment.
Karlton said the Forest Service’s failure “amounts to an abuse of discretion” and violates NEPA, which, according to the U.S. Supreme Court, requires a government agency to take a “hard look” at the environmental consequences of its actions.
Forest Service spokesperson Merri Carol Murray said, “We are complying with the judge’s order” and assembling a team to help craft a new impact statement. “If we don’t do it before Oct. 2, all other activities will be stopped.”
CATs called the ruling a “positive sign.”
“The Forest Service is radically altering vegetation on 320,000 acres of forest without knowing what the result is going to be,” said Patty Clary, CATs’ director. “The bottom line is that the Forest Service thumbed its nose at the biological imperative and an interested public that was trying to bring scientific evidence to its attention.”
The QLG, which is to be a five-year pilot forest management program, got its name from the Quincy branch of the Plumas County Library, where, beginning nearly 10 years ago, disparate interests got together to hammer out a seemingly impossible plan for 2.4 million acres that would preserve forest ecology (including habitat for the endangered California spotted owl), provide protection from fire and allow timber interests to harvest trees and help support local timber town economies.
The plan was adopted by Rep. Wally Herger and Sen. Dianne Feinstein, who carried it through Congress before former President Bill Clinton signed it. It has landed in federal court more than once and will likely continue to do so.
“CATs saw this coming and wrote the Forest Service with its concerns,” Clary said. “But we got nothing back. We didn’t want to file suit, but we felt we had no choice.”
She said NEPA does not enforce environmental rules but does enforce the democratic process.
“The judge didn’t say anything negative about the plan, just that it can’t be done," she said.