SANTA BARBARA, Calif. Dec. 6, 2016 — The U.S. Forest Service is halting new oil and gas leasing throughout the Los Padres National Forest, which prompted a federal court today to stay ongoing litigation against the agency by conservation groups. The leasing suspension will allow the Forest Service to consider the risks of fracking and drilling in the southern and central California forest to air and water quality and endangered animals like the California condor.

The Forest Service suspended its leasing plan in response to an October 2016 notice of intent to sue from the Center for Biological Diversity, Los Padres ForestWatch and Defenders of Wildlife. That notice was accompanied by a letter detailing significant new information about fracking and oil development, not known when the Service approved the plan more than a decade ago.

The leasing suspension places a hold on a decade-long legal battle initiated by the conservation groups to protect public lands slated for oil development. The agency agreed to suspend its 2005 decision that allowed expanded oil and gas leasing and development throughout the forest.

The Forest Service’s suspension oil and gas leasing will allow officials to complete additional environmental review and consult with federal wildlife biologists under the Endangered Species Act. The stay will remain in effect while the agency considers an avalanche of new information on more extreme fracking technology that was virtually unknown at the time of the 2005 plan, along with climate change and regional drought that may lead to greater harms to water quality, air quality, and endangered species and their habitats.

In a related action, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service withdrew its August 2016 biological opinion that would have allowed leasing to go forward in the Los Padres National Forest despite significant risks to California condors and other endangered wildlife.

Expanded oil and gas operations — including fracking — would further industrialize public lands, cause climate pollution, harm endangered species like steelhead trout and California condor, and threaten to pollute water supplies amidst the state’s historic drought.

“The Los Padres National Forest attracts millions of visitors each year to enjoy a wide range of outdoor recreational opportunities,” said Jeff Kuyper, executive director of Los Padres ForestWatch. “We are thrilled that the Forest Service recognizes the need to hit the pause button and reevaluate whether it is worth it to auction off these treasured landscapes to the highest bidder, placing them — and the clean water they provide to our wildlife and communities — at grave risk from oil development and fracking.”

“Fracking and drilling can pollute our air and water and cause devastating harm to condors and other wildlife in the Los Padres National Forest,” said Ileene Anderson, a biologist with the Center for Biological Diversity. “We’re glad to see that the Forest Service took our legal threat seriously and agreed to do more to protect California’s public lands and waters from oil and gas leasing and development.”

The decision follows several other environmental victories related to oil and gas along California’s central coast. In a separate court ruling in September 2016, a federal judge ruled that the Bureau of Land Management’s Bakersfield office violated the law when it adopted a plan to allow oil and gas operations across millions of acres of public lands, including those in the Los Padres, without considering the environmental risks of fracking. Similarly, in 2013 a federal judge ruled that the agency violated the law when it issued oil leases in Monterey County without considering the environmental risks of fracking.

The Center for Biological Diversity, Los Padres ForestWatch and Defenders of Wildlife previously challenged the 2005 Los Padres leasing plan for failing to fully analyze impacts of oil and gas operations under the National Environmental Policy Act.

“Wildlife and habitat across the country are already feeling the effects of climate change,” said Pamela Flick, California representative with Defenders of Wildlife. “These issues must be fully considered before the Forest Service agrees to any new oil and gas leasing that would increase our climate emissions on public lands, further threatening endangered species, at a time when our state, nation and the world are joining together to curb carbon emissions — all for just a day’s supply of oil.”

The Forest Service approved an expansion of oil and gas leasing activities on the Los Padres National Forest in a 2005 decision that opened more than 52,000 acres in Santa Barbara and Ventura counties to new oil and gas development, including more than 4,200 acres that could be affected by new infrastructure.

The plan would allow surface drilling adjacent to three wilderness areas and permit slant drilling beneath three creeks designated or proposed for protection under the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act, as well as calling for new surface drilling next to the Sespe Condor Sanctuary and the Hopper Mountain National Wildlife Refuge. In April 2007 — following a massive oil spill that coated three miles of a creek adjacent to the Sespe Wilderness — the Center for Biological Diversity joined with Defenders of Wildlife and Los Padres ForestWatch in a lawsuit contesting that the new plan violates the National Environmental Policy Act and National Forest Management Act.

In response to the 2007 lawsuit, the Forest Service agreed to revise its analysis of the plan’s impacts on endangered species. The parties agreed to stay the lawsuit until the new analysis was completed and a new biological opinion was issued in August 2016.

In October 2016 the conservation groups provided a notice to the Forest Service and the Fish and Wildlife Service that the project still failed to comply with the Endangered Species Act because it would hurt wildlife, including the extremely imperiled California condor and numerous other species that are listed under the Act. In addition, the conservation groups provided significant new information that showed that the 2005 decision and environmental review were woefully outdated and urged that no new leasing proceed without additional updated environmental review.