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Wildlife advocates sue feds over allowing logging on Sierra Nevada land burned in wildfire

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FRESNO, Calif. - Environmentalists filed a lawsuit Thursday against a federal agency, saying it aims to protect the California spotted owl living in the burned forests marked for logging after the third-largest wildfire in state history.

The Center for Biological Diversity and two other groups seek an injunction against the U.S. Forest Service, which unveiled a plan last week to allow logging on 52 square miles of forest killed in the massive central California blaze. The Rim Fire started Aug. 17, 2013, and scorched 400 square miles of the Stanislaus National Forest, Yosemite National Park's backcountry and private timber land.

The fire was the biggest in the Sierra Nevada's recorded history, destroyed 11 homes and cost more than $125 million to fight.

Forest Service officials have defended the plan, saying it strikes a balance between logging and wildlife, including the spotted owl. Georgia Dempsey, a Stanislaus National Forest spokeswoman, declined to comment on the lawsuit.

Chad Hanson of the Earth Island Institute's John Muir Project, one of the plaintiffs, said forestry officials ignored research that shows spotted owls — which are generally in decline — have begun to thrive in the dead snag forests that burned and are now marked for logging.

"They're so busy trying to generate revenue for their budget from this logging," Hanson said.

Spotted owls are not listed as threatened or endangered, but their survival depends on dead forests, which is the bird's prime hunting habitat, Hanson said. The suit seeks to stop logging on 40 per cent of the designated area, leaving plenty for the timber industry, he said. The owls need a buffer of about 1 mile between their nests or roosting sites and logging operations.

Mike Albrecht, co-owner of the logging firm Sierra Resources Management, said he expected the lawsuit but was nonetheless disappointed. He estimates the timber in the designated area is valued between $5 million and $8 million, and the logging could generate up to 1,800 jobs for two years.

"All we can hope is that we have a judge that looks at this and sees that it is a well-thought-out plan and had something for everyone," he said.

The suit was filed in the Eastern District Court of California in Fresno.

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