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Bush Administration Drops Consensus Sierra Nevada Plan

During the early 1990s, an issue of paramount concern to federal forest managers in California was the growing list of rare wildlife species whose old-growth habitat was being transformed rapidly into lumber. Fearing a repeat of events in Oregon and Washington during the late 1980s, when a series of lawsuits on behalf of the northern spotted owl all but shut down the Pacific Northwest timber industry, forest managers launched an ambitious effort to revolutionize agency policies and ensure a future for both wildlife and loggers.

The outcome was a widely praised revolution in forest management, dubbed the Sierra Nevada Forest Plan Amendment, also known as "the framework" (see CP&DR Environment Watch, March 2001). Despite its popularity, it survived only about as long as the presidential administration that produced it. Earlier this year, the U.S. Forest Service (USFS) officially deemed the plan unworkable and unveiled a new version.

Critics say the amended management plan is a barely disguised gift to the timber industry. Already, environmental groups have threatened to sue if the USFS adopts the plan after the administrative appeal period expires on April 29, and they've been joined in that threat by California Attorney General Bill Lockyer. Even the Republican administration of Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger has been critical of the Bush administration's retreat from the original framework, which Schwarzenegger had praised during his successful campaign last fall.

Caught in the middle of the escalating battle are communities scattered through the Sierra Nevada region, many of which already have begun making the transition from an economy based on timber to one based on trees that remain upright. Recent economic data show that tourism and recreation support as many jobs and provide as much income throughout the Sierra Nevada as all extractive industries combined, and that in several Sierra counties tourism already is the Number one industry. Moreover, some technology and manufacturing companies in the Sierra Nevada use the "pine tree factor" to lure and keep workers.

"Studies show some people are willing to take a pay cut to live where there is easy access to places to hike, fish and ski," the Sierra Business Council noted in a recent report. "When businesses can offer an employment package that includes superb quality of life, they can attract top-drawer people without paying top-drawer prices. The Sierra Nevada, renowned for world-class recreation, has a competitive advantage other places cannot match at any price."

The forest plan controversy is the latest chapter in a saga that began more than 15 years ago, when environmentalists filed a series of lawsuits over the plight of the northern spotted owl, found exclusively in old-growth forests of the Pacific Northwest. The suits accused the federal government of ignoring the bird's plummeting numbers and helping speed it toward extinction by allowing its habitat to be logged. In 1991, a federal judge in Seattle declared that federal agencies were guilty of "a remarkable series of violations of the environmental laws" by allowing continued destruction of critical habitat for a threatened species. Until the government came up with a plan to save the owl, he ruled, logging would be banned throughout the bird's range in Washington, Oregon and far Northern California.

The ruling shut down virtually all logging on 24 million acres in 17 national forests. The amount of federal timber cut in Oregon and Washington fell by nearly 90%, and the take from private and state lands fell by half. More than 20% of the region's timber industry workers lost their jobs.

The California spotted owl also prefers old-growth forests. It, too, has seen its habitat dwindle during decades of logging in the Sierra Nevada, as have such other rare creatures as the Pacific fisher and American marten. Stung by the sequence of court rulings that spawned such wrenching dislocations in Oregon and Washington, and facing the threat of litigation over similar circumstances in California, the USFS in 1992 began working on a broad revision of management policies governing 11.5 million federal acres in the Sierra Nevada. The goal was to avoid a similar court-ordered logging shutdown by making sure wildlife populations remained healthy enough to avoid Endangered Species Act protections.

The process of developing the new plan involved local community groups, the timber industry, scientists, environmentalists, recreation groups, economists and state and federal agencies. It cost $20 million, involved nearly 200 public meetings and attracted the participation of 47,000 people.

The plan that emerged from this process three years ago would have established a protected network of "old forest areas" to maintain suitable habitat for old-growth-dependent species. The plan put large trees off limits to logging, and estimated that 191 million board feet of timber would be available for harvest in each of the first five years.

Although Bush administration appointees initially declared themselves supporters of the plan, that swiftly changed. As 2002 dawned, the new regional forester, Jack Blackwell, announced that he planned to overhaul the framework in response to numerous appeals.

The revised version unveiled in late January would more than double the amount of timber being cut, to an estimated 450 million board feet a year. It would eliminate the protected "old forest areas" and allow larger trees to be cut.

And along the way, the purpose of the plan morphed from saving wildlife into "A Campaign Against Catastrophic Wildlfires." That's the subtitle of the advertising brochure the USFS commissioned a marketing firm to produce. Allowing commercial loggers to cut more and bigger trees, the agency argues, is the only way to offset the high cost of removing brush and small trees that pose the greatest fire threat. The plan also relies on mechanical thinning rather than prescribed fire to reduce the fuel load.

"Extremely hot, intensely burning catastrophic fires sweep through overly dense forests destroying old growth trees, wildlife habitat, and wrecking people's lives," Blackwell said in a press release announcing the new plan. "The size and intensity of wildfires are increasing dramatically. They are making the work of our firefighters more dangerous. I cannot let that continue on my watch. It will take years of concerted effort to significantly reduce the intensity of these fires, but the important thing is to get started now."

To critics, all the talk about fire danger is a ruse. "The Bush Administration is scrapping a balanced plan with broad support from environmentalists, the state of California, the public and scientific community to reward his campaign contributors in the timber industry," charged Craig Thomas, executive director of the Sierra Nevada Forest Protection Campaign.

Contacts:

U.S. Forest Service Sierra Nevada Forest Plan Amendment, www.fs.fed.us/r5/snfpa/.

Sierra Nevada Forest Protection Campaign, (530) 622-8718.

Sierra Business Council, (530) 582-4800 (www.sbcouncil.org).