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A superior court judge is forcing the county of San Diego to halt a tree removal project in the backcountry and conduct an environmental review that could take a year or longer.

In a case that could have far-reaching impacts on how land managers address drought-ravaged vegetation, Judge Ronald Prager has affirmed his tentative ruling: The county of San Diego is acting illegally by skirting environmental laws that would govern removal of dead and dying trees in the backcountry.

The county was preparing to take down 15,630 dead, dying and diseased trees along State Route 78 and State Route 79 near Julian, according to the County Counsel’s office. There are 513 private property owners whose land is targeted on 1,192 acres.

The county argued the project should be exempt from environmental laws because the trees posed an imminent threat. The California Chaparral Institute, an Escondido non-profit led by Rick Halsey, who filed the lawsuit, said they didn’t — and the judge agreed.

“If you’re going to be involved in a multi-million-dollar program to take down dead and dying trees that will use chemical and mechanical means, there ought to be environmental review to see whether it’s harmful to endangered species, water, those kinds of things,” Prager said at a Feb. 26 hearing.

The county won a $7 million grant from the U.S. Forest Service to remove trees within 500 feet of evacuation corridors and houses in the Julian area — a clearance beyond the California standard of 100 feet.

The county maintains the work would strategically target evacuation corridors and buildings in areas likely to burn.

The question facing the project, though, is this: Does long-term fire prevention work require environmental review?

Prager said the law clearly states yes, unless there is an “imminent emergency” such as an active fire or a collapsing bluff. The county would have more than three years to finish the $7 million project.

The county says an environmental review will take anywhere from six months to two years. Rory Wicks, an attorney representing the California Chaparral Institute, said the review can be fast-tracked and finished before the height of the fire season in October — if the county doesn’t appeal the decision.

Wicks said the ruling could have broader implications for future vegetation-removal projects. The Board of Supervisors has applied for $487 million in federal grants for similar work.

Carra Rhamey, a county attorney, said the decision could affect future vegetation projects, although the county evaluates each one individually. She said it’s now up to the supervisors whether they want to appeal Prager’s decision.

— REBECCA TOLIN

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