Ninth Circuit Rules Against Commercial Logging in Los Padres National Forest Roadless Area

Source: Los Padres ForestWatch

A three-judge panel at the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled in favor of three conservation organizations last week over a commercial logging project in a roadless area of the Los Padres National Forest that is actively used by endangered California condors. The ruling protects 1,100 acres of old-growth forest near the Ventura-Kern county line from large tree cutting.  

The panel’s opinion came nearly three years after the Center for Biological Diversity, Los Padres ForestWatch, and John Muir Project first filed a lawsuit—Los Padres ForestWatch et al. v. U.S. Forest Service; U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service—against the project, alleging in part that the Forest Service violated federal law by approving the removal of large-diameter trees along 12 miles of Tecuya Ridge in the Antimony Roadless Area of the San Emigdio Mountains. While a U.S. District Court judge ruled against the conservation organizations in 2020, the Ninth Circuit panel of judges disagreed and vacated the previous ruling, stating that the Forest Service’s determination that the project complies with the federal Roadless Area Conservation Rule was “arbitrary and capricious.”  

“This ruling is a big victory for the Antimony Roadless Area, which covers about 68% of the project area, and an even bigger win for the endangered California condors that have been roosting there for the past several years,” said Bryant Baker, conservation director for Los Padres ForestWatch.   

The project was contentious from the start, with over 600 public comments submitted during a single 30-day comment period in 2018. Nearly all of the comments were in opposition to the proposed logging and the fact that the Forest Service was using a loophole to avoid preparing an environmental assessment that would normally be required under the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA). Local community members also submitted a petition with 275 signatures to then forest supervisor Kevin Elliott asking him to withdraw the decision, and hundreds of additional emails from concerned citizens were sent to the agency requesting that the project be canceled.  

After the lawsuit was filed, three timber industry groups intervened in the case on behalf of the Forest Service, stating that they “have an economic interest at stake in this case” due to their “direct interests in the economic benefits from the implementation of the Tecuya Project.”  

The Forest Service awarded a contract to an Oregon-based company last year to do much of the tree cutting as part of the Tecuya Ridge project, and work was scheduled to begin later this month. The Ninth Circuit’s ruling now sends the case back to the U.S. District Court in Los Angeles for further analysis. 

In a separate but related case—Mountain Communities for Fire Safety et al. v. U.S. Forest Service—the same judicial panel ruled last week that a separate but adjacent logging project could move forward, upholding the agency’s approval of a 1,200-acre logging project in Cuddy Valley next to the Tecuya Ridge project. The Forest Service approved the project in 2020 using a loophole designed for timber stand and wildlife habitat enhancement. The Ninth Circuit panel agreed 2-1 with the Forest Service’s arguments that the agency has wide latitude on deciding which projects qualify for the “categorical exclusion” loophole. 

However, in a dissenting opinion, Judge Stein disagreed with his two Trump-appointed colleagues’ “novel interpretation” because it “would allow the Forest Service to approve commercial thinning of trees—in other words, to contract with private logging companies to cut and then sell large trees—over a potentially unlimited number of acres.” The dissent criticized the majority’s “cursory analysis” as being inconsistent with Supreme Court precedent, and “contravenes the very purpose of NEPA” to ensure that significant environmental impacts are minimized. Judge Stern’s dissent closes with the following: “By failing to consider the consequences of allowing the Forest Service to evade NEPA’s environmental disclosure requirements for projects involving significant amounts of commercial thinning—projects that are outside the scope of activities CEs are meant to authorize—the majority misses the forest for the trees and does an impermissible disservice to NEPA’s regulatory scheme and the law.” 

Los Padres ForestWatch is a local, community-supported nonprofit organization focused on protecting the Los Padres National Forest and other public lands throughout California’s central coast region. 

Earth Island Institute is a nonprofit organization whose mission is to develop and support projects that counteract threats to the biological and cultural diversity that sustains the environment. The mission of the John Muir Project is to protect all federal public forestlands from exploitation that undermines and compromises science-based ecological management. 

Los Padres ForestWatch

Written by Los Padres ForestWatch

Los Padres ForestWatch is a nonprofit that protects wildlife, wilderness, water, and sustainable access throughout the Los Padres National Forest and the Carrizo Plain National Monument. Learn more at

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  1. GeneralTree
    reality #1: Regular natural fires thin the weak, dead and diseased trees thus preventing disastrous fires.
    Reality #2 Manually thinning the forest reduces the weak and dead trees preventing disastrous fires .

  2. Logging is a great tool to thin overgrown forests and keep them healthy. Logging also reduces the vulnerability of a forest to wildfire. I fear this effort to save this beautiful forest will ultimately lead to its destruction during a future wildfire.

  3. Looks like you called it sail. The fact is, forests typically burned ever 10-20 years prior to human intervention. The article below outlines the typical intervals between forest fires prior to fire suppression efforts. I find figure 3 particularly fascinating. It shows a pine tree stump from kings canyon national park with multiple burns on its tree rings indicating fires severe enough to scar the tree occurred every 12-24 years from 1778 to 1867. Fire suppression put a stop to these frequent, low intensity, natural fires in the early 20th century. As a result, forests have become overgrown and are in danger of being burned down to a moonscape, something that rarely occurred when fires were more frequent and less intense. We now have a choice. We can use logging, mechanical clearing, and prescribed burns to thin out forests and get them back to the condition they were in prior to fire suppression efforts. This will restore fire to the forest without destroying the mature trees. Alternatively, we can persist with fire suppression policies and wait until an uncontrollable fire destroys all the trees. Then the forest can grow back from scratch. It is up to us to decide which path we take, but the forests will burn eventually one way or the other.

  4. So you would rather see it burn down to a moonscape in a future wildfire rather than than allowing loggers to thin it out and make use of the wood? I don’t understand how you can be so anti-logging that you would rather destroy a forest completely instead of cutting down a few of its trees to save it.

  5. I suppose we could pay loggers to cut down the trees as required to appropriately thin the forest, and then pay more to destroy the wood. What’s the benefit of destroying the wood instead of selling it? It seems managed logging could provide a feasible way to restore our forests to a healthier and more natural condition in a reasonable timeframe with little if any cost. I guess the slow and expensive approach is better than nothing, but it would be tragic if a forest like this one burned to the ground after a logging /thinning project that would have saved it was blocked. If fire suppression continues to be the only intervention applied to this forest, it will burn to the ground with 100% certainty sooner or later.

  6. For decades, Oregon’s timber industry has promoted the idea that private, logged lands are less prone to wildfires. Science doesn’t support that. In the decades since government restrictions reduced logging on federal lands, the timber industry has promoted the idea that private lands are less prone to wildfires, saying that forests thick with trees fuel bigger, more destructive blazes shows Oregon’s 2020 wild fires burned as intensely on private forests with large-scale logging operations as they did, on average, on federal lands that cut fewer trees.
    In fact, private lands that were clear-cut in the past five years, with thousands of trees removed at once, burned slightly hotter than federal lands, on average. On public lands, areas that were logged within the past five years burned with the same intensity as those that hadn’t been cut, according to the analysis. “The belief people have is that somehow or another we can thin our way to low-intensity fire that will be easy to suppress, easy to contain, easy to control. Nothing could be further from the truth,” said Jack Cohen, a retired U.S. Forest Service scientist who pioneered research on how homes catch fire.

  7. There are more trees per acre in our National Forests than 200 years ago… But hey, the tree huggers STILL don’t get it and everyone scratches their heads when we have huge conflagration fires in CA…. Looks like another below average winter…. Go thank a liberal and 9th Circuit Judge when we burn big again.

  8. 12:08, you can’t see the forest for the trees. The idea is to carefully and selectively remove some trees and ladder fuels. This will restore the forest to a more natural condition and make it resilient to wildfire. We are not talking about clear cutting the forest, we are talking about managing it. This forest will burn sooner or later, and if we take no action to manage it all of the trees will likely burn to the ground.

  9. I think you have a point voice. It seems like many people are clinging to the debunked “science” of the early 20th century that led to decades of fire suppression policies. The national park system saw the light and abandoned their suppression policies decades ago, but amazingly the de-facto policy for most of our forest land is still universal fire suppression. We know this is unnatural and extremely harmful to the forest, yet we persist with fire suppression.

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