SAN FRANCISCO, California, October 2, 2009 (ENS) – U.S. Forest Service management plans for four Southern California national forests do not adequately protect those forests’ wildest landscapes, a federal district court judge has ruled.

U.S. District Court Judge Marilyn Hall Patel sided with seven environmental groups, ruling that the Forest Service failed to assess cumulative damage to those national forests that would be caused by road building and other development in most of the forests’ roadless areas, in violation of the National Environmental Policy Act.

Judge Patel ruled that the Forest Service management plans ignored effects of development on 974,000 roadless acres within the Angeles, Los Padres, Cleveland and San Bernardino National Forests.

In total, these four national forests cover over 3.5 million acres of public land from Big Sur to the Mexican border, including chaparral, oak woodlands, savannas, deserts, and alpine areas. Over 20 million Californians live within one hour’s drive of at least one of these forests.

Surrounded by some of the most rapidly urbanizing land in the United States, these forests are the last remaining refuge for the region’s imperiled species such as the steelhead trout, the California condor and the California spotted owl.

At the same time, the plaintiff groups claimed, the forests are increasingly subject to disturbances – increasing demands for motorized recreation from the growing populations in Los Angeles and San Diego, oil and gas development, and invasive species, the impacts of many of which are worsened by road building.

The Center for Biological Diversity, Los Padres ForestWatch, Sierra Club, Defenders of Wildlife, California Native Plant Society, California Wilderness Coalition, and The Wilderness Society, represented by Earthjustice, sued the Forest Service to obtain better protection for these forests.

Roadless area in the San Bernardino National Forest (Photo by J. Cook Fisher)

“The decision vindicates the public’s right to know how our national forests are managed,” said Earthjustice attorney Erin Tobin. “It is a victory for southern California’s wild areas and wildlife, healthy forests, and clean drinking water.”

The challenged management plans recommended just 79,000 acres of roadless areas for possible wilderness designation and slotted more than 942,000 acres for possible road building or other development.

“Some of the most wild and pristine areas of southern California’s national forests were given a second chance with this court decision,” said Ileene Anderson of the Center for Biological Diversity. “These areas provide critically important strongholds for endangered species such as steelhead, the California condor and the arroyo toad – especially during this time of climate change.”

According to the court’s ruling, issued on Tuesday, the Forest Service violated federal environmental law by ignoring the “larger picture” of how allowing more development in roadless areas – while recommending almost no such areas for permanent wilderness protection – would affect the forests’ irreplaceable landscapes and wildlife.

Judge Patel also ruled that the Forest Service’s failure to consider alternative approaches for monitoring the health of forests and their wildlife that are harmed by wildfire management, energy development, and substantial off-road vehicle use was a further violation of the law.

“Forest plans are not empty documents to be placed on the shelf. They’re important roadmaps for resource conservation,” said Kim Delfino, the California program director for Defenders of Wildlife. “California’s national forests are some of the last remaining wild places in our state, and smart planning is essential to protecting the resources that make up our national forests, especially vital wildlife habitat.”

The Forest Service revised the forest plans for the four national forests in 2005 in response to a 1998 lawsuit by the Center for Biological Diversity but ignored a comprehensive conservation alternative developed by the Center and a coalition of other conservation groups. That alternative would have put in place protections necessary to safeguard the forests’ unique biological diversity. In 2008, the seven environmental groups filed suit over this and several other flaws in the plans.

“This ruling pulls the rug out from under the Forest Service’s decision to recommend only a paltry acreage of wilderness within the four southern California national forests,” said David Edelson, California Regional Director of The Wilderness Society. “We urge the agency to reconsider its decision and to work with Congress to provide the permanent wilderness protection that the region’s outstanding wildlands deserve.”

Many species of imperiled wildlife, including birds such as the California condor, California spotted owl, least Bell’s vireo, northern goshawk, and the southwestern willow flycatcher; amphibians such as the California red-legged frog, Sierra Nevada mountain yellow-legged frog, and the arroyo toad; and fish such as the southern California steelhead trout, the Santa Ana sucker, and the unarmored threespine stickleback will be affected by the new plans.

“John Muir called for the protection of all wild places,” said Joyce Burk of the Sierra Club’s Southern California Forests Committee. “Judge Patel’s decision is a great step in the right direction.”

Copyright Environment News Service (ENS) 2009. All rights reserved.