Yosemite logging unprecedented for a national park, says conservation group suing to stop it

Yosemite National Park has a large logging project underway that a California conservation group is asking a federal judge to stop.

The project summary states that trees up to 20 inches in diameter could be cut down in Yosemite across approximately 2,000 acres and 40 miles of park roads and trails.

“In some places, the logging that they’re doing in Yosemite Valley is so intensive, it’s actually clear cutting,” said ecologist Chad Hanson, co-founder and director of the John Muir Project. “They’re actually clear cutting the forest – mature and old forests – in Yosemite Valley.”

The John Muir Project is part of the Berkeley-based nonprofit Earth Island Institute that filed the federal lawsuit on Monday in the Fresno division of U.S. District Court. It names Yosemite Superintendent Cicely Muldoon in her official capacity, the National Park Service, and the U.S. Department of the Interior.

Earth Island Institute staff first became aware around May 11 that logging for this project was already happening. Hanson said tens of thousands of trees could be cut down throughout Yosemite.

The lawsuit states Yosemite violated the National Environmental Policy Act and Administrative Procedure Act, which governs how federal agencies develop and issue regulations, in addition to failing to uphold its mission and purpose, to conserve the scenery in a way that will leave it “unimpaired for the enjoyment of future generations.”

Logs in Yosemite Valley in May 2022.
Logs in Yosemite Valley in May 2022.

Yosemite has not done the proper environmental analysis, the complaint alleges, and has also not shared some documents with the public that the national park used to make decisions.

“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.

The plaintiffs said Yosemite’s logging plans were not made available for public comment.

Yosemite describes the project on its website as a biomass removal and thinning project to protect wildlife habitat, communities, and giant sequoias – although many of the proposed tree removals are outside where giant sequoias are known to grow in Yosemite.

“Immediate actions are needed to protect these areas from high severity fire,” the project states. “The goals are reached by thinning conifers <20” diameter, standing dead trees, and removing dead and down trees that died after the 2012-2016 drought.”

This comes in the midst of a busy year for Yosemite, with numerous large projects underway. Reservations are currently needed to enter Yosemite during peak hours due to construction and a temporary reduction in parking.

Logging in a national park? ‘I’m profoundly concerned’

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.”

It’s unclear where revenue generated from the logs are going. The project summary states that they will be hauled “to the nearest mill, co-gen plant, or other biomass processing plant” or “piled and burned,” and that “any value from biomass removal will offset project costs and will not support park operations.”

Burning after cutting trees in Yosemite Valley, June 2022.
Burning after cutting trees in Yosemite Valley, June 2022.

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.”

Hanson called the most “egregious” actions those now occurring in Yosemite Valley.

In addition to Yosemite Valley, the project includes tree removals along Wawona Road (Highway 41 outside Yosemite), Big Oak Flat and Tioga roads (Highway 120 outside the park), and within Yosemite’s Merced and Tuolumne groves of giant sequoias.

Yosemite uses the word “thinning,” not logging, in its project description. Details about the project, listed in Yosemite’s categorical exclusion form, provides more insight into what that thinning means, referencing the use of “heavy equipment, chainsaws, and other tools used in thinning operations,” along with bulldozers and fire trucks.

Logging machinery cutting down trees in Yosemite Valley, June 2022.
Logging machinery cutting down trees in Yosemite Valley, June 2022.

Details of lawsuit against Yosemite National Park

Earth Island Institute was expected to file a request for a preliminary injunction on Wednesday that could stop more trees from being cut down while the case is being decided.

Among documents not released by Yosemite: The lawsuit states the national park has not shared the environmental impact statement of a 2004 fire management plan, which Yosemite references in its project summary to justify its actions.

“There’s a lot of issues here about public transparency,” said attorney Thomas Buchele of the Earthrise Law Center, representing Earth Island Institute in this case.

Buchele didn’t share an estimate about when the court could reach a final decision in this case. There were no scheduled court dates as of earlier this week.

More trees cut down in Yosemite Valley.
More trees cut down in Yosemite Valley.

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.

Yosemite’s actions are especially “arbitrary and capricious” given that NPS itself stated the 2004 fire management plan is “out of date and no longer accurately reflects or responds to on-the-ground conditions,” the lawsuit says.

Concerns about wildfire and endangered animals

Among the concerns is how this project will affect endangered and threatened wildlife in the Yosemite area – and research of them – including the Pacific fisher, black-backed woodpecker, great grey owl, and spotted owl.

Yosemite notes that fishers and great grey owls might be present in the project area and that they could suffer “minor” impacts, but “much smaller than those posed by catastrophic fire, which could result from not taking action.”

Hanson argues against that point and says Yosemite needs to consider other scientific studies that show logging often increases wildfire danger.

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.

Earth Island Institute and a couple other California conservation groups also have a pending lawsuit before a federal judge in Fresno regarding logging projects in national forests that could harm the federally endangered Southern Sierra Nevada population of Pacific fisher, a tree-dwelling mammal in the weasel family. The U.S. Court of Appeals in January ordered the case be sent back to the U.S. District Court for further review.

Hanson said many watchdog organizations, including his own, have focused on national forests, thinking they didn’t need to worry about national parks, but this new logging project has changed that. This logging project is in addition to many other trees cut down in Yosemite last year, he added.

“What they’ve done already to-date is devastating,” Hanson said, “and what they’re proposing to do, in terms of the further logging, would be far more devastating.”