Forest for the trees

Usually when the county wants to hire a new employee, it puts out a bulletin and conducts job interviews. But at last Tuesday’s meeting, Frank Stewart, a forester for several neighboring counties, turned the tables on the county by making a pitch for his services directly to the board.

Trouble was, Paradise-area Supervisor Kim Yamaguchi, who put Stewart’s presentation on the board’s agenda, evidently failed to pass along any of the supporting documents Stewart says he gave the supervisor, including the contract he was asking the board to sign.

Stewart wants the county to hire him to advocate for a forest management plan cooked up by the Quincy Library Group (QLG), a citizens committee that started out as an attempt to reach a compromise between the interests of timber companies and environmentalists in dealing with forest management issues. But the group has become controversial, with many environmentalists accusing it of pushing plans that do more to protect logging companies’ bottom lines than they do to protect the environment. The group is currently helping the U.S. Forest Service fight off at least five lawsuits related to QLG plans to thin the Sierra Nevada Forest. Plaintiffs include the Sierra Club, Earth Island Institute, Wilderness Society, California Forestry Association and Attorney General Bill Lockyer.

In addition to asking the board to hire him as the official county forester, a position for which he’d be paid almost $6,000 this year, he asked the board for $7,000 from the county’s already-strapped general fund to help fight some of the above-mentioned lawsuits. Chico-area Supervisor Mary Anne Houx told Stewart he was barking up the wrong tree.

“In all due respect for you sir, I can see a need for the money right here,” Houx said, wondering aloud why the issue was not presented to the county Fire Safe Council, and asking why no supporting documents had been passed along to the board. “Why do we need a county forester when the CDF has three? Why should Butte County defend a lawsuit against the Forest Service?”

Houx’s disapproval was significant, because an appropriation from the general fund requires a supermajority vote from the board. Chico-area Supervisor Jane Dolan has a history of opposing Stewart on other issues and thus likely represents the only other “no” vote needed to send him packing.

The issue was tabled until county staff had time to look over Stewart’s proposed contract, giving Stewart a choice to either save face or face possible rejection at an upcoming board meeting.

Three members of the public, including a member of both the Upper Ridge Coordination Council and the Fire Safe Council, voiced support for hiring Stewart, saying they were tired of environmentalists holding up forest-thinning projects necessary for fire safety. Stewart, in his presentation, said environmentalists had created a “crisis industry” that is abusing the National Environmental Protection Act, costing the public millions in lost wages and timber harvest dollars.

Jim Brobeck, a local environmentalist and member of the Butte County Fire Safe Council, said most environmentalists do not oppose tree-thinning measures near urban areas, especially those that thin the small-diameter trees and ground brush that provide fuel for wildfires. But some of the plans Stewart promotes, Brobeck said, are based on faulty science and benefit timber companies more than they do forests or the people who live near them. For example, while Stewart advocates taking out large trees in order to thin the forest canopy, Brobeck said doing so only allows more light and water to reach the forest floor, causing a sudden growth in the types of shrubs and small trees that are known to fuel forest fires. In addition, he said, forest thinning efforts should be concentrated in areas where people live.

“I support thinning projects near communities, but a lot of the projects in the QLG framework are in the remote forest,” he said. “Fires are going to return to our forests. We need to do fuel modeling that predicts fire behavior.”