National Park Service Litigated for “Logging” Hazard Trees in Yosemite

There are several interesting things about this FrezBee article on litigation by Earth Island Institute on Yosemite hazard tree removal..

(1) The Park Service can’t comment because it’s under litigation… the cone of silence. So we get only one side of the story. Too bad there aren’t some Park retirees the reporter could interview.

“Yosemite National Park is aware of the litigation that was filed regarding the tree removal in the park,” Yosemite spokesperson Scott Gediman said Wednesday afternoon. “We are currently reviewing the contents of the litigation. At this time, we do not have any further comment on this matter and we’ll continue to work through it.” Gediman said he was not able to answer some other questions from The Bee at this time, which included whether Yosemite ever solicited public input about the project.

(2) for you NEPA-nerds

Instead of conducting a new environmental impact statement or environmental assessment, the lawsuit states, Yosemite filed a less-thorough categorical exclusion form, which largely relies on older studies. Earth Island Institute said that document is inadequate and in contradiction with key points in previous plans, including that Yosemite can now remove trees up to 20 inches in diameter, instead of those only up to 12 inches in diameter. “Tiered actions cannot ‘differ’ from the document tiered to – this is the opposite of what NEPA contemplates,” the lawsuit states.

CE’s don’t have to be tiered to anything is my understanding, and why would the Park Service tier if they didn’t have to?


Hanson said some of the felled trees are being sent to commercial sawmills, while in the past, hazardous trees cut down in Yosemite were left on the ground to biodegrade as part of the ecosystem. “This is a massive departure from that,” Hanson said, “and they didn’t even tell anyone they were doing it.”

Apparently to Hanson, all biomass needs to be left in place, even if dead and within 200 feet of a road, so that it can fall naturally (?).

Hanson worries about the precedent this project could set. He’s never heard of a similar project in another national park. “I’m profoundly concerned,” Hanson said, “because if Yosemite National Park can start a large-scale commercial logging program, then this can happen in any national park in the country.”

I know that Rocky Mountain National Park also cut down and removed bark beetle killed trees along roads and in campgrounds. They may have burned them in piles, which would be arguably worse for the environment than sending them to become lumber or to a biomass plant (re: carbon and air quality, as well as risk of pile burning escaping containment). It seems awfully philosophical for the rightness of the action is based on whether the trees are sold or not, not what happens to the environment when they are removed/ burned or whatever.

Unless the thought is that the Biden Park Service is out to cut more trees to satisfy the evil timber industry (sounds not too believable, IMHO).

(4) This quote relates to our “how long is a planning document useful” and “what is controversial” questions.

In a court declaration, Hanson said Yosemite shouldn’t be relying upon a 2004 fire management plan. Since then, “the entire scientific landscape has changed dramatically regarding forest and wildfire science, and the 2004-era assumptions and assertions upon which the Project is based are now viewed as strongly contested, highly controversial, or largely discredited,” he continued.

If we follow his logic, any dry forest NFMA plans earlier than 2004 would not have current legal validity as being out of date. And since science changes so quickly, we could expect a plan that takes five years to develop to be out of date as soon as it gets out of litigation. It makes the task of plan revision sound a bit Sisyphean. Of course, this is not news to many FS employees.

(5) If 200 feet from the centerline is too much, how will the public be involved in the outcome of the lawsuit, since the plaintiffs are concerned about the public having a voice. Perhaps putting any proposed settlements out for public comment? I think that that would be a great innovation. This seems like the kind of thing mores suited to open and transparent mediation than litigation IMHO.

12 thoughts on “National Park Service Litigated for “Logging” Hazard Trees in Yosemite”

  1. Circa 2014, Lassen Volcanic National Park did an entry within the park utilizing “logging” and understory removal. The associated area around it also has had prescribed fire projects.
    No one said a single word or sued anyone over the understory logging, the area of which still looks natural, far more resilient to potential wildfire (was not impacted by the Dixie Fire), and there is no shortage of all kinds of wildlife within in.
    Unfortunately, E.I.I. prefers high profile lawsuits, right or wrong, since it helps with notoriety, throwing around their writings, and a reason to hit the donate button.

  2. Some one say NEPA nerd? Well then ..
    I’m not going to stake my life on it, as I haven’t yet read Yosemite’s organic act, but on review of the CE’s I don’t see the authorization. The CE’s can be found here:
    Download the spreadsheet and then tab over to NPS. Here’s the exclusions:

    E. Actions Related to Resource Management and Protection.
    (1) Archeological surveys and permits involving only surface collection or small-scale test excavations.
    (2) Day-to-day resource management and research activities.
    (3) Designation of environmental study areas and research natural areas.
    (4) Stabilization by planting native plant species in disturbed areas.
    (5) Issuance of individual hunting and/or fishing licenses in accordance with State and Federal regulations.
    (6) Restoration of noncontroversial native species into suitable habitats within their historic range and elimination of exotic species.
    (7) Removal of park resident individuals of non-threatened/endangered species which pose a danger to visitors, threaten park resources or become a nuisance in areas surrounding a park, when such removal is included in an approved resource management plan.
    (8) Removal of non-historic materials and structures in order to restore natural conditions.
    (9) Development of standards for, and identification, nomination, certification and determination of eligibility of properties for listing in the National Register of Historic Places and the National Historic Landmark and National Natural Landmark Programs.

    I mean, they might be trying to shoe horn it in under (2) or (7) … I haven’t looked at the existing resource management plan. But, the takeaway is the NPS has not applied to CEQ for CE authorizations at even 1/4 the volume of the USFS.

    I’ll dive into the RMPs later tonite and should have a firm opinion on the matter tomorrow. But as to a CE that’s specifically on point? Not seeing it.

  3. Well, that didn’t take long. A little look at the Organic Act as amended demonstrates the wide latitude given the director. Check here:
    United States Code ServiceTITLE 54. NATIONAL PARK SERVICE AND RELATED PROGRAMS (§§ 100101 — 320303)Subtitle I. National Park System (Divs. A — B)Division A. Establishment and General Administration (Chs. 1001 — 1049)CHAPTER 1007. Resource Management (Subchs. I — IV)Subchapter II. System Unit Resource Protection (§§ 100721 — 100725)

    See § 100723(b):
    (b) Response actions and assessment of destruction, loss, or injury.
    (1) Actions to prevent or minimize destruction, loss, or injury. The Secretary shall undertake all necessary actions to—
    (A) prevent or minimize the destruction, loss of, or injury to System unit resources; or
    (B) minimize the imminent risk of destruction, loss, or injury to System unit resources.
    (2) Assessment and monitoring. The Secretary shall assess and monitor destruction, loss, or injury to System unit resources.

    Yeah, the authority is there. Now for the CFRs. I’m going to almost guarantee it’s in their resource management plan. Which begs the question — why in the heck are they nattering on about CE’s?

  4. And here it is in the CFRs, under a separate CE designation:

    Code of Federal Regulations Title 43 Public Lands: Interior Subtitle A — Office of the Secretary of the Interior Part 46 — Implementation of the National Environmental Policy Act of 1969 Subpart C — Initiating the Nepa Process § 46.215

    To wit:
    Extraordinary circumstances (see paragraph 46.205(c)) exist for individual actions within categorical exclusions that may meet any of the criteria listed in paragraphs (a) through (l) of this section. Applicability of extraordinary circumstances to categorical exclusions is determined by the Responsible Official.
    (a) Have significant impacts on public health or safety.
    (b) Have significant impacts on such natural resources and unique geographic characteristics as historic or cultural resources; park, recreation or refuge lands; wilderness areas; wild or scenic rivers; national natural landmarks; sole or principal drinking water aquifers; prime farmlands; wetlands (EO 11990); floodplains (EO 11988); national monuments; migratory birds; and other ecologically significant or critical areas.
    (c) Have highly controversial environmental effects or involve unresolved conflicts concerning alternative uses of available resources [NEPA section 102(2)(E)].
    (d) Have highly uncertain and potentially significant environmental effects or involve unique or unknown environmental risks.
    (e) Establish a precedent for future action or represent a decision in principle about future actions with potentially significant environmental effects.
    (f) Have a direct relationship to other actions with individually insignificant but cumulatively significant environmental effects.
    (g) Have significant impacts on properties listed, or eligible for listing, on the National Register of Historic Places as determined by the bureau.
    (h) Have significant impacts on species listed, or proposed to be listed, on the List of Endangered or Threatened Species or have significant impacts on designated Critical Habitat for these species.
    (i) Violate a Federal law, or a State, local, or tribal law or requirement imposed for the protection of the environment.
    (j) Have a disproportionately high and adverse effect on low income or minority populations (EO 12898).
    (k) Limit access to and ceremonial use of Indian sacred sites on Federal lands by Indian religious practitioners or significantly adversely affect the physical integrity of such sacred sites (EO 13007).
    (l) Contribute to the introduction, continued existence, or spread of noxious weeds or non-native invasive species known to occur in the area or actions that may promote the introduction, growth, or expansion of the range of such species (Federal Noxious Weed Control Act and EO 13112).

    My work is done here.

  5. Even within Yosemite National Park, logs have been sold in the recent past. I personally witnessed helicopter logging in the Foresta area, after the A-Rock Fire. The last time I was in Yosemite Valley, I saw a pair of logs trucks headed out on Big Oak Flat Road.

    When I worked out of Groveland after the A-Rock Fire, there was a determination that Forest Service log loads could not travel within the Park. That meant using helicopters to fly logs across a creek, to a Forest Service road system.

    We could also get a re-burn on parts of the Park within the Rim Fire footprint. We’ve already seen that re-burns in Yosemite are particularly damaging, these days.

  6. Many years ago while traveling through Prairie Creek part of the Redwood National Park I came across Sitka Spruce that fallen across the road. It had put quite a dent in the road. It was a huge beautiful trees. I could see it making hundreds of musical instruments. I went to the headquarters and asked about it. The answer was no never, ever, no way would any tree be removed from the park. I am glad to see maybe things have changed a little. I was never one who thought letting such valuable resource just rot away was a good idea.

  7. I think the problem may be a lack of NEPA nerds in the NPS. Here’s the key language in the complaint overview:
    “The Defendants relied upon an inappropriate “categorical exclusion” (“CE”) to exempt the Project from additional required analysis under NEPA, and, in their words, “tiered” to an admittedly outdated Fire Management Plan (“FMP”) environmental impact statement (“EIS”), which has not been made available to Plaintiff or the general public for review… The specific categorical exclusion relied upon by the NPS to approve the Project is one which exempts from further NEPA review “[c]hanges or amendments to an approved plan, when such changes would cause no or only minimal environmental impact.” CE Form at 3. The approved Project, however, does not involve a change or amendment to an approved plan. Instead, it authorizes site-specific activities including cutting live, mature trees” (which does not have minimal impact).

    If they have a CE for the logging they are doing, they apparently didn’t try to use it. But to my mind, there should never be a need to “tier” a categorical exclusion to some prior environmental analysis – the only question is whether there is a category for what is being proposed (and no extraordinary circumstances). And there seems to be confusion about the relevance of certain “plans” to meeting NEPA requirements.

    • I said the same thing in the post.. “CE’s don’t have to be tiered to anything is my understanding, and why would the Park Service tier if they didn’t have to?” You and I agree! There must be more to NPS NEPA than meets the eye.

    • I would add to Jon’s on-point comment that a properly promulgated categorical exclusion has already gone through a NEPA-required environmental analysis. That’s what CE rule-making is supposed to do. While that analysis is not an EA or EIS, per se, it is a NEPA review that demonstrates through facts and analysis that the category of projects proposed to be excluded from future EA/EIS review actually has no significant environmental effects. Thus, back to Jon’s point, it’s silly to think about tiering a CE to an EA or EIS; it is already tiered to the CE’s rule-making factual record.


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