Court Rules on Yosemite’s Vegetation Thinning Practices in Response to Environmental Lawsuit

A federal court of appeals has ruled in favor of the National Park Service’s ability to continue tree thinning and vegetation management in Yosemite National Park as part of its prescribed burning projects. The court dismissed challenges from the Earth Island Institute, an environmental group based in Berkeley, effectively allowing the park service to proceed with its efforts.

The Earth Island Institute had filed a lawsuit in June 2022 against Yosemite Superintendent Cicely Muldoon and the park service, temporarily halting biomass removal and tree thinning projects. These projects aimed to protect the giant sequoias in the Merced and Tuolumne groves, preserve wildlife habitats, safeguard communities, and enhance scenic vistas in the park. The institute and its representatives had described these efforts as commercial logging.

Chad Hanson, a research ecologist and director of the Earth Island Institute’s John Muir Project, had claimed that “destructive commercial logging has, for now, been halted in Yosemite National Park’s wildlands.” The park service maintained that these projects were necessary for fire prevention and management.

The court’s ruling found that the Earth Island Institute had overstated the controversy surrounding the projects and mischaracterized them as commercial logging. It clarified that no entity was profiting from the sale of timber cut during the projects, and funds received were solely dedicated to offset project costs. The tree thinning was in preparation for prescribed burning, not post-fire logging.

The Earth Island Institute argued that thinning could increase the risk of severe fires, but the court concluded that the scientific evidence did not support this claim.

Chad Hanson, in response to the ruling, stated that they are evaluating their next steps. He reiterated the importance of scientific evidence in understanding forest management practices and their impact on wildfire severity.

The case stemmed from the park service’s adoption of a fire management plan in 2004 and its approval of two projects in 2021 and 2022 to thin vegetation in preparation for controlled burns. The Earth Island Institute filed the lawsuit under the National Environmental Policy Act, arguing that a full environmental impact review was necessary.

The Central Sierra Environmental Resource Center welcomed the court’s decision, emphasizing that reducing extreme wildfires would benefit rare wildlife and reduce wildfire risks in Yosemite. The center had submitted a letter in the case, supporting the park service’s efforts.

Active NorCal

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