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Forest Service abandons Lake Tahoe logging plan that scientist says exaggerated fire threats

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RENO, Nevada — The U.S. Forest Service has abandoned logging plans it suspended in the mountains above Lake Tahoe nearly two years ago after a prominent scientist filed a lawsuit accusing the agency of acting illegally under the guise of reducing wildfire threats that did not exist.

Dennis Murphy, a professor of conservation biology at the University of Nevada who has authored key research for the service at Tahoe for years. He welcomed the cancellation of the fuels reduction project across about 100 acres of old-growth forest about 8 miles southwest of South Lake Tahoe, California.

But Murphy said the legal fight will continue in federal court. The slash piles of timber waste from hundreds of trees the agency cut and left behind have, ironically, increased fire threats previously of little real concern near Echo Lakes.

"Its decision to now walk away from the area having increased surface fuel loads, which now pose a risk to lives, property, and the local ecosystem, is inexplicable," Murphy said.

The Forest Service suspended the operations on the edge of the Desolation Wilderness in October 2013.

Jeff Marsolais, forest supervisor of the Lake Tahoe Basin unit, said in a memo last month to his boss that he'd decided to withdraw the 2012 decision his predecessor issued implementing the plan to reduce the risk of catastrophic fire without conducting the usually required environmental analysis. The Tahoe Daily Tribune first disclosed the memo.

"No further activity will occur on this project," Marsolais said in the July 20 memo the agency provided The Associated Press.

Murphy, whose family has had a cabin in the area for 80 years, was the lead editor of the two-volume Lake Tahoe Watershed Assessment prepared for the Forest Service in 2000. He's served as president of the Society of Conservation Biology and three different panels for the National Academy of Sciences, including one on the Endangered Species Act.

Murphy's lawsuit filed in U.S. District Court in Sacramento in November 2012 said the service was ignoring its own analysis of the low fire risk in the area. It accused the agency of violating the National Environmental Policy Act by failing to prepare an environmental impact statement or environmental assessment. It also said the agency failed to consult with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service about the potential harm to wildlife, including the Sierra Nevada yellow-legged frog.

Ex-Forest Supervisor Nancy Gibson determined the project was exempt from the usually required environmental assessment or impact statement. But the agency acknowledged that situation changed in April 2014 when the frog was proposed for listing as an endangered species.

Forest Service spokeswoman Cheva Gabor said the agency doesn't discuss active litigation.

Last fall, the competing interests clashed over the slash piles.

Murphy filed a formal notice with Judge Garland Burrell Jr. that USFS was violating the law again by moving some after assuring the court it wouldn't disturb the site without prior notice.

Assistant U.S. Attorney Gregory Broderick said agency workers moved seven slash piles by hand Oct. 17 at the request of the California Regional Water Quality Board.

"One would think that Murphy would welcome such actions, taken at the request of state environmental regulators, given his strenuous objections to any slash piles being left in damp areas," Broderick wrote.

The next court hearing isn't scheduled until March 7, 2016.

Murphy's lawyer, Paul Weiland of Irvine, California, said he didn't understand why the agency pushed the project so long before suddenly changing course.

"Their position is their decision to withdraw has nothing to do with the lawsuit but they offer no explanation. I find that curious," he told AP. "We're happy they have decided they are not going to pursue the project further, but they still have a mess up there and they can't just walk away."

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