City, County and Conservation Groups Sue USFS Over Reyes Peak Project

The United States Forest Service is facing a host of lawsuits over its authorization of the Reyes Peak Forest Health and Fuels Reduction Project in the Los Padres National Forest in California, which will allegedly destroy more than 750 acres of biologically diverse public land.

The County of Ventura, the City of Ojai and environmental nonprofits filed complaints on Wednesday in federal court, claiming that the Forest Service violated the Administrative Procedure Act, the National Environmental Policy Act, the National Forest Management Act, the Roadless Area Conservation Rule and the Healthy Forests Restoration Act when it approved the Reyes Peak Project.

The Forest Service issued a scoping letter and project proposal for the Reyes Peak Project in May 2020. However, the agency failed to consult with community stakeholders, including Native American tribes, conservation groups, scientists and property owners, and the public did not learn of the project until after the scoping letter was issued, court documents state. The scoping letter stated that the project fell under categorical exclusions to NEPA, and that an environmental assessment and environmental impact statement were not necessary. 

“The agency wrongly relied on categorical exclusions…instead of conducting an environmental assessment…or environmental impact statement…, thereby short-circuiting public involvement and the consideration of alternatives. This matters because alternatives to the Project could have avoided harm to the wild character of the Project area and the cultural sites it contains,” court documents state. 

The Forest Service received an outpouring of opposition to the project, with 99 percent of the 16,000 public comments submitted against it. Despite this widespread opposition, in October 2021, the Forest Service approved the Reyes Peak Project, court documents state.

Plaintiffs claim the project will negatively impact native wildlife and habitat; harm the ancestral lands of the Chumash people; impair the aesthetic value of forest lands, trails and landscapes; cause loss of scientific study and viewing opportunities; and impair recreational opportunities.

In addition to the alleged legal violations by the Forest Service previously mentioned, plaintiffs are also suing the United States Fish and Wildlife Service for violating the Endangered Species Act and the APA by falsely concluding that the project would not harm California condors and their critical habitat, and the Forest Service and Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack for violating the HFRA and the APA by failing to issue annual reports pertaining to the use of categorical exclusions. 

Plaintiffs are seeking to enjoin the implementation of the Reyes Peak Project pending compliance with the APA, the NEPA, the NFMA, the Roadless Rule, the HFRA and the ESA. 

The County of Ventura is represented by Ventura County Counsel. 

The City of Ojai is represented by Colantuono, Highsmith & Whatley PC

Plaintiffs Los Padres Forest Watch, Keep Sespe Wild Committee, American Alpine Club and Earth Island Institute are represented by the Environmental Defense Center, and the Center for Biological Diversity, Patagonia Works and the California Chaparral Institute are represented by the Center for Biological Diversity