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The Planet
May 1999 Volume 6, Number 4

Legal Victories Overturn 'Capricious' Agency Plans

Sierra Club lawsuits recently resulted in victories over sprawling growth and an illegal timber-harvest plan.

In California, a Sacramento Superior Court judge voided the El Dorado County general plan because it didn't adequately evaluate the impacts new development would have on area water supplies, traffic and the environment. Meanwhile, in Georgia, a three-judge federal panel ruled that the U.S. Forest Service didn't conduct a satisfactory tally of rare and sensitive species before approving logging projects on the Chattahoochee National Forest. Both cases sent government agencies back to the drawing board.

The Georgia case is being hailed as a significant triumph because the Forest Service was found to be violating its own rules.

"The highest court in the region agreed with us that this Forest Service logging program is illegal because it can't assure that many of our rarest species will not become endangered," said René Voss, of the Club's End Commercial Logging on Federal Lands campaign. The agency had authorized the construction of 18 miles of roads and logging on about 2,000 acres in the Chattahoochee, a project that would have discharged 155 tons of sediment into surrounding waterways. Yet the Forest Service claimed impacts would be negligible - despite the fact that declining species such as brook trout, cerulean warbler and others could be driven to the edge by clearcut logging and erosion from logging roads. The Sierra Club argued that the lack of population data for these rare species rendered the evaluation inadequate.

The court agreed. "The Forest Service's approval of the timber sales without gathering and considering data on the (management indicator species) is arbitrary and capricious," wrote Judge Rosemary Barkett for the unanimous panel.

Meanwhile, like the Forest Service, El Dorado County also found itself unsuccessfully trying to convince a judge that its management plan adequately and honestly described the true environmental impacts it would have.

El Dorado County is in the Sierra Nevada foothills east of Sacramento, the state capital. The county's general land-use plan - designed to facilitate a population boom from 148,000 to 370,000 over the next 15 years - violated the law because it failed to disclose to the public the real impacts of such rapid growth and lacked a true accounting of future water needs.

The main constraint on urban growth within El Dorado County has been the water supply. The lawsuit, filed by the Sierra Club, other environmental groups and a taxpayer group, pointed out that the plan would cause explosive growth and a host of environmental problems, including reduced flows in the south fork of the American River.

The suit also asserted, and Judge Cecily Bond agreed, that the land-use plan didn't evaluate the impacts of increased development on traffic or critical wildlife habitat in the county. Judge Bond found that 13 major roads would be pushed to gridlock conditions.

"El Dorado County not only violated the law, but failed to give its citizens an honest, realistic look at the water needs and other problems that would be caused by explosive, uncontrolled growth into its rural and agricultural sections," said Sierra Club attorney Alex Levinson.

"These two lawsuits - more than a thousand miles apart, one challenging a logging proposal in a beautiful Georgia forest, the other a county's land-use plan in the Sierra foothills - together show the power and promise of 'good-government' environmental laws," Levinson said. "They allow ordinary citizens to hold the government accountable when it violates its own laws."

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