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Appeals court rules firebreak lawful

A 20-mile-long firebreak in Washington did not violate federal environmental law, the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals has ruled.
Mateusz Perkowski

Capital Press

Published on June 12, 2018 10:04AM

The Wolverine Fire in 2015 burned some 65,000 acres near Lake Chelan in Central Washington. An environmental group’s lawsuit against the U.S. Forest Service for building a fire line to protect rural hamlets has been thrown out.

U.S. Forest Service

The Wolverine Fire in 2015 burned some 65,000 acres near Lake Chelan in Central Washington. An environmental group’s lawsuit against the U.S. Forest Service for building a fire line to protect rural hamlets has been thrown out.


An environmental group has failed to convince a federal appeals court that forest managers unlawfully created a firebreak in Washington’s Okanogan-Wenatchee National Forest.

The 20-mile-long “community protection line” was created by the U.S. Forest Service in 2015 in response to the Wolverine Fire, which burned roughly 65,000 acres near Lake Chelan.

Forest Service Employees for Environmental Ethics, a nonprofit environmental group, filed a lawsuit claiming the agency acted unlawfully by cutting the 300-foot-wide swath and allegedly removing 100 acres of northern spotted owl habitat.

A federal judge dismissed the complaint last year, ruling that Forest Service managers acted according to emergency regulations in creating the firebreak, but the plaintiff challenged that decision before the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.

The 9th Circuit has now found the judge didn’t abuse his discretion by throwing out the lawsuit because the Forest Service properly used its “emergency rule” even though wildfires are a regular occurrence in the West.

“While it is true that fires happen every year, it defies plain language and common sense to conclude that no individual fire — or its course, intensity, or duration — could be unforeseeable,” the 9th Circuit said. “It is unreasonable to argue that forest fires can never present emergency situations when viewed at the time the fire is raging.”

The environmental group had argued the firebreak was “simply an improperly implemented timber sale, and serves no fire suppression purpose,” as evidenced by the fire never coming within six miles of the line.

Establishing the firebreak was “indistinguishable from commercial logging,” created the same soil disturbance and other negative effects that should have been reviewed under the National Environmental Policy Act, the complaint said.

The lawsuit sought to require the Forest Service to conduct an environmental analysis of the firebreak, mitigative adverse impacts and enjoin the agency from using the emergency regulations until the review was finished.



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