Environmental organizations recently appealed a federal judge’s ruling in favor of the U.S. Forest Service’s Pine Mountain chaparral removal project to the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.
Known as the Reyes Peak Forest Health Project, the Los Padres National Forest project would remove chaparral and trees across 755 acres that extend along Pine Mountain between state Highway 33 and Reyes Peak in Ventura County, bordering Cuyama in Santa Barbara County. The project moved forward as part of an effort to mitigate wildfire impacts and declining health conditions in the area, according to previous Sun reporting.
“We are confident in the current science used in developing our forest health projects that will enhance the survivability of Reyes Peak as threats from climate change impact these unique areas,” said Andrew Madsen, a spokesperson for Los Padres National Forest.
Bryant Baker, the director of conservation and research for the nonprofit Los Padres ForestWatch, told the Sun that the coalition of plaintiffs—including ForestWatch, the Environmental Defense Center, the Center for Biological Diversity, and Patagonia—want an appeals court to look at the case again because they believe the Forest Service violated the Endangered Species Act, the National Environmental Policy Act, and the Roadless Area Conservation Rule.
“The project didn’t go through an environmental assessment or impact report; [the Forest Service] used a loophole called a categorical exclusion. It’s important [for] projects of this size and scope, especially for projects that are extremely controversial. About 16,000 people submitted comments against this project,” Baker said.
Categorical exclusions allow certain projects to bypass the federal environmental review process based on location and size requirements, Baker said.
“Some are specific on what they can be used for like road maintenance or painting a ranger station because every single action a federal agency takes has to go through some level of environmental review for any action,” Baker said. “Of course it’d be ridiculous to fix a door at a ranger station that they would have to go through a full-blown environmental statement.”
In the last 10 years, Congress has added more categorical exclusions to environmental review requirements, including the Healthy Forest Restoration Act, a law that allows agencies to reduce the risk of fire and protect endangered species, he said.
“There are specific requirements that the Forest Service has for using these categorical exclusions, and we think they did not meet these requirements and the district court incorrectly said that they did,” Baker said.
The plaintiffs went through a long process to determine their appeal and legal strategy, Baker said. The coalition met the 60-day appeal deadline and should be filing its first brief in late November.