Cut a tree, save a forest
New direction in Sierra Nevada forest management plan met with doubt and derision
What a difference an administration makes.
Three years ago it looked like a forest management plan for federal lands in the Sierra Nevada had finally been adopted. The plan, developed by the U.S. Forest Service under the Clinton administration, emphasized wildlife and water protection and relied on prescribed burns as much as logging to thin, manage and protect the forest.
Environmentalists cautiously embraced the plan, known as the Sierra Nevada Framework, while the timber industry dismissed it as a last-minute attempt by President Clinton to establish a legacy of conservation.
Recreation enthusiasts and timber interests felt their needs were ignored by the Framework, which was the result of 12 years of study and, after the release of the draft environmental-impact statement, some 47,000 comments from the public, scientists, state and federal agencies, tribes, interest groups and elected officials.
At the time, the Forest Service declared the Framework would go a long way toward healing the Sierra Nevada ecosystem. The management plan had come in the wake of the Sierra Nevada Ecosystem Project (SNEP) report, the largest study of its kind on the mountain system. SNEP concluded that 90 years of fire suppression combined with poor logging practices and recent drought had left the forests bug-infested, overgrown and ready to explode with catastrophic fire.
Brad Powell, the regional forester at the time of the Framework’s adoption, declared then the importance of protecting the California spotted owl.
But after George Bush became president, the complaints lodged by competing forest interests gained some footing, and at the urging of California Congress members, including local area Rep. Wally Herger, the plan was revisited one year ago.
On Jan. 22, a revised and possibly final forest management plan for 11 million acres of the northern Sierra Nevada, including the Plumas, Lassen and Tahoe national forests, was unveiled, this time much to the consternation of conservationists and to the guarded optimism of the timber industry.
The new plan will allow three times the amount of timber harvesting as the old one and increase from 20 inches to 30 inches the minimum trunk width of trees that may be taken. It will allow about 330 million board-feet of green timber to be offered annually for the first decade. Salvage harvesting, the taking of trees after a fire, will remain the same as with the 2001 Framework.
Reversing their respective stances, the California Forestry Association now calls the reworked plan “a step in the right direction,” while the Sierra Nevada Forest Protection Campaign (SNFPC) says the change is a “disappointment.”
Pacific Southwest Regional Forester Jack Blackwell, who replaced former regional forester Powell, said that he was “deeply troubled” that the fire danger in the Sierra is increasing.
“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. “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.”
Blackwell said that the fires last fall in Southern California that burned thousands of acres of chaparral and bug-infested trees played a role in his decision for the Sierra Nevada.
David Graves, conservation coordinator for the SNFPC, said the comparison was unfair. “The Southern California fires were on a very different landscape and a different environment,” he said. “One of the main causes was the Santa Ana winds.”
Graves contrasted the two plans, saying the Framework was a result of years of study, hundreds of meetings and much public input and interest, but the revised plan had few if any meetings and little scientific support.
In the original plan, Graves said, 75 percent of the money spent on fuel reduction was aimed at areas near communities. Now, he says, spending in areas where people live has been reduced by 25 percent and transferred to more remote, uninhabited lands.
He said the SNFPC had not yet decided what action to take in response and that it was still waiting to see the final record of decision and environmental-impact statement.
Phil Aune, vice president of the California Forestry Association, said the new plan does not go far enough in forest thinning because the national forests are experiencing an overstock problem and even the increased allowance for thinning is not enough.
“The forests are growing so doggone much,” said Aune. “At 1.5 percent a year, that means 15 percent more wood in a decade. How long until the forest just collapses?”
Aune said that, while fire used to keep forests healthy and in check, prescribed burns are no longer an option. “That is a pipe dream that is never going to happen with the air-pollution standards we have,” he said.
Thinning, he said, is the practical answer, but he’s not sure this plan goes far enough. “You thin them out and they grow back and then you thin them out again.”
Like the SNFPC, the association is waiting to see what it will do next. "We may or may not appeal [the latest decision]," he said. "We’re looking for long-