Natalie Hanson

SAN FRANCISCO (CN) — The U.S. Forest Service could fell tens of thousands of trees and place nearby wildlife at risk if two new logging projects in California’s prized Sequoia National Forest go forward, environmentalists say in a federal lawsuit.

The nonprofit organizations Sierra Club, Earth Island Institute and Sequoia Forestkeeper sued the federal government Thursday to fight what they say are two destructive large logging projects in the national forest. They say the feds pushed for the projects under the guise of ecological restoration of two areas burned in wildfires in 2020 and 2021, but that the logging will put nearby wildlife and threatened species at serious risk.

In a 42-page complaint, the groups say the feds authorized tree felling and removal this past December, including by commercial timber sale, within the footprint of two recent fires in the forest.

The projects would mean chopping down and removing trees from over 13,000 acres of public forestlands, and are the largest proposed since the creation of the Giant Sequoia National Monument. The feds have also authorized vegetation management treatments such as pile burning, managed or prescribed burning, reforestation and meadows restoration.

The Forest Service told the public that they would use hand tools and leave most felled trees away from larger giant sequoias. But the pending removal of thousands of live and dead trees as proposed “is not clearly needed for ecological restoration and maintenance," the groups say in their complaint.

“If anything, the Castle and Windy fires have helped restore forest areas that have recovered naturally for millennia without logging,” the groups say in their complaint. “Moreover, the types of major federal actions proposed in these projects require detailed analyses in environmental impact statements to pass legal muster and comply with the National Environmental Policy Act.”

The groups also claim the feds prepared only two environmental assessments and associated "findings of no significant impact," which they say were produced with insufficient analyses of logging the geographically, ecologically and biologically diverse region. They say the logging projects will adversely affect riparian areas, water quality and carbon storage, increase soil erosion and compaction from logging hauling on sensitive post-fire soils and damage the natural regeneration process of trees and plants in the wildfire burn scars.

“Rather than take a ‘hard look’ at site-specific direct, indirect and cumulative effects, the Forest Service’s cursory analyses offer only general and conclusory statements that the projects would not significantly affect proposed, threatened, endangered, and sensitive species, or other sensitive resources in project areas," the groups say in their complaint. "The analytical scale of these assessments was simply too coarse for the agency to satisfy its obligations under NEPA, glossing over the potential adverse effects from the project on these and a myriad of other resources.”

The groups want a federal judge to declare that the Forest Service violated the National Environmental Policy Act and the National Forest Management Act, and to set aside the Castle and Windy Project’s assessments and findings. They want the service ordered to prepare new assessments for both projects with new alternatives and to comply with the Giant Sequoia National Monument’s Plan standards and guidelines for tree diameter limits and wildlife habitat.

They are represented by René Voss of Natural Resources Law.

The Forest Service did not immediately respond to a request for comment.