Logging project in Yosemite National Park halted after environmental lawsuit

Yosemite National Park, California-July 14, 2021-Trees cut down in Yosemite National Park in July 2021. The nonprofit Earth Island Institute has filed a lawsuit to stop logging in the National Park arguing that the work violates federal environmental requirements. The "biomass removal project" covers nearly 2,000 acres within the park and authorizes crews to remove thousands of standing dead trees and healthy ponderosa pines, white firs and incense cedars to reduce the fire risk to Yosemite Valley, the Merced and Tuolumne groves of giant sequoias, habitat for rare species including Pacific fishers and great gray owls and communities including El Portal, Foresta and Yosemite Village. Chad Hanson, a member of Earth Island Institute, is against the biomass removal project. (Carolyn Cole/Los Angeles Times)
Stumps left from cut trees are seen in Yosemite National Park in July 2021. The nonprofit Earth Island Institute has filed a lawsuit to stop logging in the park, arguing that the "biomass removal and thinning" project violates federal environmental requirements. (Carolyn Cole / Los Angeles Times)

A controversial plan to expand logging in Yosemite National Park has been temporarily halted under a recent court order from a federal judge.

The National Park Service has sought to allow logging across nearly 2,000 acres of Yosemite. Federal authorities say the forest-thinning project would be aimed at removing dead trees that can provide fuel for wildfires.

But the Earth Island Institute, an environmental nonprofit, filed a lawsuit in federal court last month alleging that the park service began logging for commercial purposes in Yosemite without public notice or assessing environmental risks. The lawsuit was filed against the National Park Service and Cicely Muldoon, superintendent of Yosemite National Park.

On Friday, a federal judge ordered the National Park Service to halt the logging operation and continue operations under its 2017 fire management plan. That plan largely leans on prescribed burns over tree thinning and removal, according to the John Muir Project, a project under the Earth Island Institute that has spoken out against the logging proposal.

The court order calls for only limited rehabilitation work along Merced Grove Road and states that “no trees will be cut during this work.”

According to the lawsuit, the National Park Service began commercial logging under a new “biomass removal and thinning” project around May 11. At that time, the nonprofit became aware of a new forest thinning and logging plan that was posted to the National Park Service’s website, it said.

Scientists have spoken out about the risk around commercial logging projects that fall under the fold of fire management but may increase the severity of wildfires.

Last year, more than 200 scientists signed a letter to Congress and President Biden warning of commercial logging’s potential to increase carbon emissions and worsen the climate crisis, according to the John Muir Project. The letter stated that “thinning” and “fuel reduction” efforts could remove mature, fire-resistant trees that are needed for forest resilience and could increase wildfire intensity.

Representatives from Yosemite National Park did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

The park service's proposed logging project in Yosemite would span the Merced and Tuolumne groves of giant sequoias, Yosemite Valley, and the communities of Yosemite West, Wawona, El Portal, Foresta and Yosemite Village.

Project plans state that “immediate actions are needed to protect these areas from high severity fire.” The plan calls for thinning conifer trees that are less than 20 inches in diameter, standing dead trees and downed trees that died after the 2012-16 drought, according to project documents.

“We are pleased that the Park Service and its attorneys were willing to work with us to avoid the need for a temporary restraining order,” Tom Buchele, an attorney representing the Earth Island Institute, said in a statement.

Buchele added that halting this project will “provide the greatest protections to communities from fires” and prevent logging in areas that would cause “irreparable harm” to Yosemite’s forests.

The court order was delivered as both parties in the lawsuit await a formal hearing on a preliminary injunction to halt the logging project, which is scheduled for Aug. 15.

This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.