City Councilor Eric Navickas said he will file a lawsuit in federal court in Eugene this week challenging a U.S. Forest Service plan designed to prevent forest fires in the Ashland watershed by thinning trees.
Navickas cast the lone vote against the Ashland Forest Resiliency Project in October, when it came before the council for approval. Acting as a citizen, he also filed an administrative objection after the Forest Service gave the project final approval.
He said Wednesday that the project would be too invasive in riparian and roadless areas, cut too many large-diameter, trees, endanger spotted owl habitat and cause erosion on sensitive soils.
Former Ashland resident and environmental activist Jay Lininger, now of Flagstaff, Ariz., is also a plaintiff.
"Our intent is not to stop the project," he said, noting that he is acting as a citizen, not a council member. "This is overreaching, 1950s-style logging that they propose. It focuses on large-diameter trees"»and they're going into virgin, pristine areas in the upper watershed that have never been logged."
Navickas informed City Manager Martha Bennett, Mayor John Stromberg and council members of his decision to sue in an e-mail.
City Councilman Greg Lemhouse, a supporter of the project, said it has a broad base of support.
"I really hope this doesn't slow down the process and we're affected by a disastrous fire in the meantime," Lemhouse said. "It would be a shame if his objections stop a project that's so crucial to us."
Lemhouse said the 7,600-acre project is backed by the Nature Conservancy, Lomakatsi Restoration Project, the Ashland Chamber of Commerce, local legislators and others. It was developed after years of negotiations between forest managers and community members.
"It's been a lot of hard work from many different people," Lemhouse said. "It's a community plan that has (support of) groups with all perspectives, and we expect it to go forward. It's not perfect for all partners but everyone needs to deal with dangers to the watershed."
In a news release, Navickas said, "The need for fire restoration is clearly urgent, and we support much of what is proposed. But the Forest Service goes too far by taking large trees from riparian and roadless areas."
Navickas for years has opposed the expansion of the Mount Ashland ski area on Forest Service land at the top of the 14,000-acre the municipal watershed.
In an interview, he faulted the project for "cutting ridge lines and compartmentalizing the watershed."
In the same news release, Lininger said the complaint alleges that removing many large trees violates the Northwest Forest Plan and the Healthy Forests Restoration Act.
"Large trees with tall canopies and thick bark also are the most fire resilient vegetation in the forest, and their removal sets back the purpose of restoring fire resiliency," Lininger said. "Big old trees are critical habitat for imperiled creatures that we need to protect."
The project has been a collaborative venture involving the city, Forest Service and other conservation organizations. It proposes to thin woody, highly flammable materials in the watershed, which is the source of Ashland's municipal water supply, and around homes in the "urban-wildland interface," where urban and rural uses merge.
It would be funded with $2 million in federal economic stimulus money. The Nature Conservancy won a $43,600 grant for conservation groups and the city to monitor the project to measure its efficacy.
In giving a nod to the project last fall, Russell Hoeflich, Oregon director of The Nature Conservancy, said it would result in "clean water, greater public safety, healthy habitats for fish and wildlife and forests more resilient to wildfire, insect damage and the impacts of climate change."
Paul Galloway, acting public information officer for the Rogue River-Siskiyou National Forest, said the agency would have no comment on the matter, because it will be in litigation.
Navickas was elected to the City Council in 2006, with a margin of less than 100 votes in a turnout of nearly 8,000 voters. Prior to joining the council, he was a visible figure in a number of protests, including a nude demonstration at city hall. After an Iraqi journalist threw his shoes at President George W. Bush, Navickas, who operates an art gallery in town, gave patrons an opportunity to throw shoes at an image of the president.
He said he has not decided whether he will seek a second term because of the amount of time that serving on the council requires.
John Darling is a freelance writer living in Ashland. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org.