Circuit Court Says Forest Thinning Projects Can Continue

In a judgement filed on Friday in the Tenth Circuit, Judges Tymkovich, Ebel, and Hartz ruled that two forest thinning projects in New Mexico’s Santa Fe National Forest, approved in 2018 by the U.S. Forest Service, should not be stopped after environmental concerns were raised.

The projects discussed in the case are the Hyde Park Wildland Urban Interface Project and the Pacheco Canyon Forest Resiliency Project. Each one seeks to address about 2,000 acres of densely packed forest comprised of young trees due to recent fire suppression. Because of the density, the trees are not able to receive the necessary water and sunlight and are thus more vulnerable. The thinning is planned in portions of the acres for each project and would target smaller trees.

The plaintiffs who appealed the case are represented by Thomas J. Woodbury, I. The group consists of environmental organizations and individuals who challenged the approval, claiming the Forest Service did not follow the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) and the Healthy Forests Restoration Act (HFRA). Defendants, employees of the Santa Fe National Service and the U.S. Forest Service, are represented by the Department of Justice.

“By thinning the forest and then conducting prescribed burns in the project areas, the Forest Service aimed to reduce the risk of high-intensity wildfires and tree mortality related to insects and disease,” the judgement explained, stating that the court found the Forest Service complied with NEPA and HRFA and “adequately considered the projects’ cumulative impacts.”

Under NEPA, federal agencies must analyze environmental consequences before taking action.  The Act does not mandate a particular result of the evaluation but prescribes a process including Environmental Impact Statements (EIS). The Forest Service alleges it is exempt from NEPA in this case.

“In approving the projects, the Forest Service considered certain potential cumulative impacts in detail.  For example, it considered the potential cumulative effects of the expected subsequent treatments in the project areas on sensitive species.  It also considered the potential cumulative effects of thinning in multiple areas within the Fireshed on management indicator species and threatened and endangered species.  In each instance, it found no adverse cumulative effects,” the opinion stated.

The judges also rejected Wild Watershed and the other plaintiffs’ argument that the forest service failed to account for how to best develop old growth and preserve wildlife’. They ruled the plaintiffs did not show that the two projects did not comply with HFRA and that the Forest Service performed extensive reviews for the projects.