Published: December 6, 2006
By MIKE MORRIS
The Union Democrat
Up to 40 million board-feet of logs ultimately bound for Sierra Pacific Industries' Standard sawmill remains about 90 miles away in the Eldorado National Forest.
Two environmental groups earlier this year successfully halted shipment of the timber from fire-damaged portions of the Eldorado forest to the Tuolumne County mill.
Over the summer, four groups — three based in Tuolumne County — got involved in the lawsuit when they asked a U.S. District Court judge to increase a nominal bond posted by the environmental groups suing the U.S. Forest Service over the timber.
A larger bond could have helped cover the Forest Service's losses as dead timber from the sale rots while the lawsuit makes it way through the legal system, said Mike Albrecht, president of Sierra Resource Management, a Sonora logging company.
But the judge disagreed, and about two weeks ago decided to keep the bond amount at $1,000 — and not to raise it to $200,000, as suggested by SPI.
"There's no need to post an exorbitant bond," said Rachel Fazio, an attorney with the John Muir Project of Earth Island Institute, one of the groups that filed suit.
The judge ruled, among other reasons, the environmental groups didn't have enough money to post a larger bond.
"We think that's not true," said Damien Schiff, a lawyer with Sacramento-based Pacific Legal Foundation, a nonprofit legal group representing the Tuolumne County Alliance for Resources and Environment, Sierra Resource Management, the Tuolumne County Chamber of Commerce and the California Forest Counties Schools Coalition.
Fazio said it's "somewhat ridiculous" that Tuolumne County groups, not the Forest Service, are spearheading the bond issue.
"We're having to deal with motions from people who shouldn't even be involved in the case," she said.
Melinda Fleming, a consultant with TuCARE, said the groups got involved because the timber provides job security at the Standard mill, which benefits the local economy.
"We care about the Eldorado sale because we get a product from them," she said.
On Monday, Schiff filled a request asking the District Court judge to reconsider his Nov. 20 ruling on the bond issue. Schiff said a decision to file a formal appeal has yet to be decided.
"The case is still alive and I think we're going to appeal," Albrecht said Monday.
Albrecht said 30 to 40 million board-feet of timber from the sale remains on the Eldorado forest floor. That amount, he said, is roughly twice what the Standard mill gets from the Stanislaus National Forest in a year.
A board foot is an inch-thick, foot-square piece of lumber.
Albrecht guessed that by springtime, 80 to 90 percent of the wood will be rotten.
"It's very disappointing," he said. "It indicates to me how out of touch the legal system is with what is actually happening on the ground."
The legal challenges came after the Earth Island Institute and the Center for Biological Diversity alleged that the Forest Service used poor science to determine which trees died or are dying because of the Power and Freds fires in the Eldorado forest and failed to compensate for the logging's impact on different species, such as the California spotted owl and the black-backed woodpecker.
From May to September 2005, SPI hauled wood from burned portions of the Eldorado forest to its mill in Standard.
"They basically clear cut Freds and a majority of Power," Fazio said. "I don't know how greedy they have to be."
The 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in March sided with the environmental groups by ruling that allowing logging to continue could cause too much damage to the forest while the lawsuit proceeds.
This ruling overturned a U.S. District Court decision in August 2005, which allowed the logging to go as planned.
Fazio said she's not sure when the case will be resolved. The Forest Service, she said, could try and take the case to the U.S. Supreme Court or they could talk settlement.
"These things don't get resolved quickly, that's for sure," she said.
Contact Mike Morris at firstname.lastname@example.org or 588-4537.