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Yosemite National Park logging project halted after environmental lawsuit. What now?

·5 min read
Special to The Bee

A controversial logging project that could permit thousands of trees as large as 20 inches in diameter to be felled throughout nearly 2,000 acres in Yosemite National Park has, at least temporarily, been stalled.

The halt comes after a lawsuit filed last month by the John Muir Project — a conservation group that’s part of Berkeley-based nonprofit Earth Island Institute — against Yosemite National Park for allegedly conducting a commercial logging project without proper environmental analysis or sharing crucial documents with the public.

Represented by Earthrise Law Center, the suit filed in the Fresno division of the U.S. District court names Yosemite Superintendent Cicely Muldoon in her official capacity, the National Park Service, and the U.S. Department of the Interior as defendants.

An agreement between Yosemite National Park and the John Muir Project announced Tuesday will stop more trees from being cut down, at least for now, according to a statement released by the John Muir Project and Earthrise Law Center.

“We are pleased that the Park Service and its attorneys were willing to work with us to avoid the need for a temporary restraining order,” said Earthrise Law Center attorney Tom Buchele in the statement.

Under the agreement, the park will follow its own fire management plan and utilize wildland fire and prescribed burning to manage 99% of the park. Tree cutting, known as thinning, and removal of dead trees adjacent to communities will be used only in the remaining 1% of the park.

According to the suit, the park violated the National Environmental Policy Act and Administrative Procedure Act — which governs how federal agencies develop and issue regulations — and failed to uphold its mission and purpose to conserve the scenery in a way that will leave it “unimpaired for the enjoyment of future generations.”

The project is described by Yosemite National Park officials as a biomass removal and thinning project to protect wildlife habitat, communities, and giant sequoias from severe fires, according to its website.

However, many of the proposed tree removals are outside where giant sequoias are known to grow in Yosemite.

According to the John Muir Project, over 200 climate scientists and ecologists in 2020 warned the Biden Administration and Congress that commercial logging disguised as forest thinning does not stop climate-driven wildfires and often makes them burn more intensely toward homes, while worsening climate change.

The new agreement will remain at least until the federal district court in Fresno issues a ruling on the plaintiff’s motion for a preliminary injunction, and allows the court time to consider legal briefs and arguments. A court hearing on that motion is scheduled for Aug. 15, according to the judge’s order.

Proper measures not taken, says group

Earth Island Institute staff first became aware around May 11 that logging for this project was already underway. The plan allegedly began without public notice or comment, and did not comply with the park’s own fire management plan. Earth Island Institute also said there was no environmental analysis of potential harm to endangered species like the Pacific fisher and great gray owl.

Rather than doing a new environmental impact statement or environmental assessment, the park filed a less-thorough categorical exclusion form that largely relies on older studies, according to the lawsuit.

Critics of the logging project say the park shouldn’t rely upon land management strategies from nearly 20 years ago, as best practices for forests and wildfire from that time are now contested or discredited.

The suit also alleges that the document is inadequate and in contradiction with key points in previous plans, including that trees up to 20 inches in diameter can now be removed, instead of those only up to 12 inches in diameter.

According to the conservation group, thousands of trees could be cut down throughout Yosemite for commercial use.

In addition to Yosemite Valley, the project includes tree removals along Wawona Road (Highway 41 outside Yosemite), Big Oak Flat and Tioga roads (Highway 120 outside the park), and within Yosemite’s Merced and Tuolumne groves of giant sequoias.

“In some places, the logging that they’re doing in Yosemite Valley is so intensive, it’s actually clear cutting,” said ecologist Chad Hanson, co-founder and director of the John Muir Project, in an interview with the Fresno Bee last month. “They’re actually clear cutting the forest – mature and old forests – in Yosemite Valley.”

Some felled trees are being sent to commercial sawmills rather than left on the ground to biodegrade as part of the ecosystem as they have in the past, Hanson said.

It’s unclear where revenue generated from the logs are going, but the project summary states that biomass will be hauled “to the nearest mill, co-gen plant, or other biomass processing plant” or “piled and burned,” and that “any value from biomass removal will offset project costs and will not support park operations.”

Although he’s never heard of a similar project in another national park, environmental advocates like Hanson have voiced concern over the precedent the logging could set.

Hanson said many watchdog organizations like his have focused on national forests, operating under the assumption that national parks weren’t a concern. The Yosemite project has since changed that, he said.

The National Park Service could not be immediately reached by the Sun-Star for comment.

“Yosemite National Park is aware of the litigation that was filed regarding the tree removal in the park,” Yosemite spokesperson Scott Gediman said told the Fresno Bee in an interview last month.

“We are currently reviewing the contents of the litigation. At this time, we do not have any further comment on this matter and we’ll continue to work through it.”

The Fresno Bee’s Carmen Kohlruss contributed to this report.