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Following CA Blue Ribbon Fire Commission Report, PLF Challenges Environmental Groups to Stop Using Lawsuits to Halt Forest Fire Prevention Programs - PLF Applauds Governor's Commission for Recognizing How Environmental Lawsuits Hurt People, Environment
April 15, 2004 News Release
Sacramento, California - Pointing to findings in Governor Schwarzenegger's Blue Ribbon Fire Commission report released today, Pacific Legal Foundation called on environmental organizations to stop using the courts to interfere with needed healthy forest and fire prevention programs.
"It's clear from the Commission's findings that fuel reduction programs are a key component of protecting California from devastating wildfires like the ones that ravaged southern California last year," said PLF attorney Emma T. Suarez. "Time is of the essence in these situations, and as the Commission reports, our state agencies must have the freedom and flexibility to implement these programs in a timely manner to reduce the risk of major fires."
"With the constant threat of lawsuits from environmental groups, it's very difficult for our public servants to do the job they need to do to protect Californians," Suarez added.
PLF points to recent lawsuits by environmental organizations targeted specifically to stop fuel reduction projects as examples of the legal roadblocks that face state and federal agencies responsible for fire fighting and prevention. For example:
* In Montana, an environmental group is suing to stop the use of fire retardants to fight forest fires. If successful, the lawsuit will critically weaken firefighters' ability to fight fires.
* In California, environmentalists have successfully stopped the fuel reduction and restoration projects relating to the Star Fire that swept through the El Dorado and Tahoe National Forests two years ago. The fire consumed 17,000 acres of habitat for the California spotted owl. The Star Fire salvage project would have removed fire fuel in 10% of the burned area, replanted trees, and rehabilitated the seared hillsides, but environmentalists opposed the plan and a three-judge panel of the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals enjoined it.
* In Oregon, Wilderness Society and other environmental groups have made it clear that they will sue to stop the Biscuit Fire Recovery Plan, a plan aimed at restoring damaged ecology by reforesting portions of the burned forest.
"Environmental organizations even have a website dedicated to teach environmental litigators how to use the courts to stop forest health and fire prevention projects on public lands," said Suarez, pointing to the web site of an environmental law firm, Wildlaw.
According to the Commission, laws like the federal Endangered Species Act are problematic precisely because they are not flexible enough to allow officials to make decisions that protect people and the environment. For example:
* News reports following California's 2003 firestorm described how, in Riverside County, the ESA prevented private landowners from clearing firebreaks on their own land to avoid disturbing the habitat of the endangered Stephens' kangaroo rat. In the ensuing fires, several homes burned, as did much of the rat habitat.
* The Los Angeles Times reported that fuel reduction programs (tree and brush thinning) that would have limited the scope of the 2003 firestorm were not implemented because of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service's concerns over the threatened California gnatcatcher and other species.
* Fox News reported that, according to a congressional investigation, more than half of all federal projects proposed to reduce fuel were never implemented, including several that would have limited the scope of the 2003 firestorm. These programs were caught in a morass of litigation threats and lawsuits.
"These environmental groups know that when they bring lawsuits to stop fire prevention programs, they win even if they lose in court because they slow down the restoration programs for years. In the meantime, forest fires erupt and people lose their homes, businesses, and even their lives. The irony is that the species they supposedly want to protect also are decimated," said Suarez.
"In recognition of these type of problems, Governor Schwarzenegger's Commission has made a number of key findings relating to the conflicts between environmental regulation and the state's ability to prevent and fight forest fires," said Suarez. "The Governor's Commission has done all of us a great favor by being bluntly honest: environmental politics stand in the way of effective fire prevention and fighting. In today's political climate, where any criticism of how overzealous implementation of environmental laws hurts both people and the environment, the Commission was valiant enough to discuss the issue up-front. Now it's time for environmental litigators to do their part and stop using the courts as a roadblock to effective and long-term wildfire prevention."
Pacific Legal Foundation is a public interest legal organization that is a national leader in the effort to reform the ESA and raise awareness of the Act's impact on people. PLF's headquarters are in Sacramento, California. More information is available at http://www.pacificlegal.org
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