Sierra Standoff

Was the Forest Service claiming portions of Lassen National Forest were dead just so they could be logged? It was, until Chad Hanson came along.

Chad Hanson walks among trees in the Storrie project area that at one time were slated for removal as fire-damaged salvage. He and other environmentalists appealed, saying the trees were healthy, and the appeal was upheld.

Chad Hanson walks among trees in the Storrie project area that at one time were slated for removal as fire-damaged salvage. He and other environmentalists appealed, saying the trees were healthy, and the appeal was upheld.

Photo by Rachel Fazio

Somewhere in the middle of the Lassen National Forest, Chad Hanson turns his Jeep sharply onto a dusty logging road with the wheel-rattling surface of a washboard. This road through the forest is just one of many in a maze of tiny logging roads with long numbers—26N74 or 26N23—instead of names. Hanson stops the Jeep.

He looks through the windshield at a forest that looks very much like the woods he’s been driving through for many miles.

This is national-forest land. As national forest that belongs to all Americans, it is intended to be protected and preserved for generations to come—a job that falls to the U.S. Forest Service.

Red firs, white firs, ponderosas and sugar pines are in abundance in this old-growth forest. Many of the giant trees are hundreds of years old. The 2,700-mile-long Pacific Crest Trail passes through here; for hiking and camping in solitude, these woods can’t be beat. This stretch of forest also provides one of the few remaining homes for the pileated woodpecker (the model for Woody Woodpecker), and wildlife biologists say it’s prime habitat for the endangered spotted owl.

These big trees are also potentially worth millions of dollars to any timber company that can land a federal logging contract. But getting permission to log in a national forest is no simple matter. There must be some public benefit, on paper at least, to cut down the people’s trees and sell them for private profit.

“This is it,” Hanson says as he swings the door open. He pulls a spiral-bound book from behind the driver’s seat and opens it onto the hood of the Jeep, revealing a map of the forest.

“This is where we are, the beginning of the project area,” he says, putting his fingertip down at the intersection of road 26NO2 and a thin, red line that represents the Pacific Crest Trail.

The map shows a large, pink area spreading south from our intersection. Looking up from the map and ahead at the real terrain, we can see a stand of apparently healthy, tall red-fir trees crowned with towering combs of green needles.

The pink blotch on the map indicates this was the site of a “catastrophic stand-replacing event,” a term of art, Hanson explains, used by the Forest Service to indicate that this area was wiped out by a forest fire two years ago. He puts his fingertip back on the pink spot on the map and then raises it again to point at the seemingly healthy fir trees. “Everything you see is dead,” he says with a smirk.

Hanson means these trees are dead on paper only; dead in a way that gives the Forest Service a good reason to sell healthy trees off to the highest bidder among the many logging companies that do business in this part of the Sierra.

Chad Hanson stands next to an old-growth pine marked for removal with an “H,” for “hazard,” even though it has been merely scorched at its base and is otherwise healthy.

Photo by Cosmo Garvin

The book with the map represents two years of work by the Forest Service’s Almanor Ranger District, a division of the Lassen National Forest. The district ranger is officially in charge of maintaining the health of the forest and making sure that the resource is somehow shared equitably among a host of competing uses, including hiking, camping and other recreation; environmental preservation; and some logging.

Two years ago, the big Storrie fire (named for a tiny town miles away) swept through 56,000 acres straddling the Butte and Plumas county lines. About half of the fire was on private land, half in the national forest. The Almanor Ranger District determined that 6,000 acres were burned so severely that they needed to be “restored,” the dead and dying trees removed and new ones planted. The trees supposedly killed by fire and left standing were considered volatile tinder waiting to go up the next time fire comes to these woods.

The Storrie Post Fire Restoration Project was conceived, officially, to reduce this dangerous “fuel loading” and to rebuild natural habitat destroyed by the fire. Whole stands of ostensibly dead and dying trees were marked for removal. The actual work of cutting and hauling out trees, called salvage logging, would be done by a private timber company and would provide new product and jobs to local lumber mills. A timber sale of this size would provide hundreds of jobs and hundreds of thousands of dollars to local governments in taxes.

Evidence of the fire is more apparent as one walks deeper into the forest. Here and there are pockets of charred, obviously dead trees. The foliage and branches have been almost completely stripped by fire, and trees by the dozens stand like blackened javelins pointing into the sky.

But, within a few yards of these heavily scorched areas are stands that look as though they were hardly touched by the flames. Larger trees in particular appear to have fared much better. Several red firs that are more than a hundred feet tall appear normal but for a black band of scorch covering no more than the bottom foot or two of the trunk. A few of these have slashes of orange spray paint across their trunks.

Is this tree with the orange slash to be removed? No, Hanson explains, “That’s a leave tree.” Anything with an orange mark is to be left alone.

Trees with no markings, which far outnumber the orange-marked ones, will be cut. Still others, some of the largest, are marked with a big blue “H.” These too will be cut because they are “hazard trees,” ostensibly so damaged, so near death, that they might fall onto the nearby Pacific Crest Trail or a lonely logging road and kill someone.

The problem with the maps’ designated areas and the tree markings is that, to the layperson at least, they don’t seem to reflect the actual health of the trees. The hazard trees do not seem especially hazardous. The trees marked as dead and dying do not appear to be dead or dying.

The Forest Service has said people shouldn’t be fooled and that even the trees that look healthy will be dead within two or three years. Hanson and others say that is not true; the sale is a sham.

Hanson leans his 6-foot-5-inch frame against the base of a 150-foot-tall red fir. With his short, bristly blond hair, he looks more like a Marine than a tree-hugger. But there he is, chest against the tree and looking straight up into the crown. He guesses the tree is 200 years old.

“And that’s all new green foliage,” he says, referring to needles that began to grow after the tree trunk and crown were licked by flames. “This tree isn’t dying at all.” If it were, he added, it would be dead by now.

Puterbaugh charges that the Storrie salvage project blatantly violates the Sierra Nevada Framework.

Photo by Tom Angel

The disconnect between what the Forest Service calls “dead” and what appears to the naked eye actually to be living is at the heart of a two-year-long battle between the Almanor Ranger District, the timber industry and a handful of environmentalists like Hanson. “I guess they thought no one would ever come out here and see for themselves what they are about to do,” Hanson says.

What the Forest Service is about to do, he goes on, is large-scale commercial logging under the guise of fire prevention and environmental restoration.

“It’s just a timber grab,” he adds. That’s why Hanson and other activists have exercised their rights under federal environmental laws to file citizen appeals against the project, hoping to stop, or at least mitigate, what they say is a fraud and a giveaway of public forest for lumber-company profits.

Their fight puts them, and the Storrie project, smack-dab in the middle of the intense, even antagonistic, national debate on how best to manage the national forests.

Hanson is a former pre-med student who, while hiking the Pacific Crest Trail in the Tahoe National Forest several years ago, came across a hillside that had been clear-cut of all its trees as part of a salvage-logging sale that followed a fire in the area.

After days of hiking in through virgin woods, Hanson was shocked by the clear-cut. To him, it was emblematic of the abuse private corporations can do to public land for a profit, and it changed his life. He left school and dedicated himself to fighting all commercial logging on national-forest land.

Hanson has a reputation for being uncompromising and radical. Some of his environmentalist colleagues say his rhetoric is too shrill and his politics too extreme. Despite his reputation, or perhaps because of it, he’s been able to win election to the Sierra Club’s National Board of Directors, along with a handful of fellow reformers.

Hanson is also director of the John Muir Project, an organization he founded with his wife, Rachel Fazio. The project is an offshoot of the late David Brower’s Earth Island Institute, the environmental organization Brower formed after being forced out as executive director of the Sierra Club for being too radical. Its sole purpose is to end all commercial logging on public land.

It’s an idea that has gained momentum during the past few years. In 2000, the Sierra Club officially came out for the first time against commercial logging in national forests and crafted legislation to end the practice. Early this year, the club’s National Forest Protection and Restoration Act had more than 100 congressional co-sponsors. Although the vast majority of commercial timber is grown on private tree farms, national-forest land holds some of the oldest, biggest and most valuable trees.

Supporters of a logging ban say the commercial sales are notorious money losers, costing taxpayers billions of dollars to subsidize the timber industry. In return, supporters say, hundreds of thousands of old-growth trees are lost, and the environmental and fire-prevention benefits are dubious at best.

In March of 2000, in response to what was then a record-breaking wildfire season, the Clinton administration, through the USDA (the Forest Service’s parent agency) and its parent agency, the U.S. Department of the Interior, came up with a National Fire Plan. The plan codified a growing consensus among foresters, scientists and environmentalists on how to mitigate the dangerous fire conditions that had been created by decades of Smokey Bear-style fire suppression.

Dead trees, by anybody’s reckoning.

Photo by Cosmo Garvin

In a natural, healthy forest, the argument goes, fires periodically clear out the shrubs, small trees and underbrush that catch fire easily. But years of extinguishing every fire that broke out created forests overloaded with fire fuels, leading to ever bigger and more destructive wildfires.

The fire plan recommended that agencies in charge of public lands reduce fire hazards by removing flammable undergrowth such as shrubs, weeds and saplings through prescribed burning or hand removal. The plan gave top priority to thinning projects that were directly adjacent to communities.

It also explicitly warned that fire-management efforts should “not rely on commercial logging or new-road building to reduce fire risks.” Such logging, the report cautioned, might lead to the removal of large trees—the most commercially valuable trees but also the most naturally fire-resistant—and thereby increase fire risk. Large trees do not catch fire as easily as smaller trees, just as large logs on a campfire won’t burn without plenty of kindling.

Some studies also suggest that removing the largest trees removes forest canopy cover, allowing more sunlight to strike the forest floor and therefore leading to drier conditions and faster-growing underbrush and small trees. Finally, logging operations often remove large tree trunks while leaving flammable dead branches and foliage, called slash, behind.

But many timber-industry representatives, forestry officials and elected politicians argue that some large, commercially valuable trees must be removed occasionally to help pay for the costs of thinning. The taxpayers, they insist, shouldn’t and needn’t bear the entire burden.

The total timber volume of the proposed Storrie fire sale was estimated at some 16 million board feet (imagine a board one foot square and one inch thick). The best bid the Almanor Ranger District got on the project was a little more than $330,000. Depending on the species and the quality of the wood, a timber company can get anywhere from $300 to $600 per thousand board feet. So, the value of the project is easily in the millions of dollars to whoever lands the contract.

“The Forest Service wants to log. It’s driven by the timber-industry mandate to ‘get the cut out,'” insists Hanson. “That’s why we want to end the commercial incentive for mismanagement.”

If you were driving on Humboldt Road into the forest for some hiking, or just snooping around, you might stop in the tiny town of Butte Meadows, 35 miles northeast of Chico, to buy a candy bar. The folks who run the town’s single store there are friendly. “If you’re hungry, we can make you a sandwich,” they say.

Down Humboldt Road a little farther, the closest town to the Storrie project, Jonesville, is even smaller, little more than the impression of a dozen or so cabins and the fleeting smell of wood smoke. This tiny hamlet is still five miles as the crow flies from the Storrie project site. Nonetheless, it is one of the communities that the logging plan is intended to protect.

“The Storrie project is really far away from any towns or villages,” says Trish Puterbaugh, who lives 20 miles north of Chico, in Cohasset, which is also in the Lassen National Forest.

Puterbaugh believes thinning projects should be done in the immediate vicinity of existing communities. A thinning project that takes out large, living, green trees miles away from any settlement will do nothing to protect towns like Jonesville or Butte Meadows, she says.

“Dead” trees, according to the Forest Service.

Photo by Cosmo Garvin

That’s why Puterbaugh, acting on behalf of the local Lassen Forest Preservation Group, filed an appeal to stop the project, as did Hanson and others. A year ago, the John Muir Project and the Lassen Forest Conservation Group were successful, through earlier appeals, in getting some 2,000 acres dropped from the project.

Fuel reduction near existing communities is just what is called for in the Sierra Nevada Framework, which went into effect last year. It’s a new and somewhat untested forest-management plan hammered out between environmentalists, the timber industries and the Forest Service. The framework governs all national-forest land in the Sierra Nevada range and took 10 years and $20 million worth of studies to complete.

The Bush administration recently indicated that it wants to “revisit"—and some fear abandon—the agreement.

But for now the framework is law, and Puterbaugh says the Storrie project clearly violates many of its principles. Under the framework, dead trees in “Old Forest Emphasis Areas,” which includes most of the Storrie project area, can be removed if there is some obvious environmental benefit to doing so.

But Puterbaugh said the issue here isn’t really whether removing dead trees is good for the environment because the Forest Service isn’t really going after dead trees.

“We never would have appealed if they said they’d only take black trees,” Puterbaugh says. But the Almanor Ranger District wouldn’t budge. “They told me this was a do-or-die project,” she says, adding that the district appeared committed to going through with the sale, despite what she thought were obvious violations of the law.

Over the summer, as Hanson and Puterbaugh have battled the Forest Service over the Storrie plan, national forests have been through another devastating fire season. With more than 6 million acres burned, this summer’s fires are on track to surpass the record-breaking year of 2000. In response to the wildfires, the Bush administration has announced its own Healthy Forests Initiative.

The new plan focuses on complaints from forestry officials and timber-industry groups that thinning projects are hampered by “analysis paralysis.” They complain that citizen appeals and lawsuits have tied the hands of foresters trying to reduce dangerous fuel loads on public lands.

“Legitimate fuels-reduction projects almost never get appealed,” counters Jay Watson, regional director of the Wilderness Society. “Yes, projects do get appealed. But, by and large, they are projects that have nothing to do with reducing the risk of fire.”

Ironically, it was the Democrats, the supposed allies of the environmental community, who gave Bush the idea for his Healthy Forests Initiative. Senate leader Tom Daschle, D-S.D., may have sparked the fight when he wrangled exemptions from appeals and lawsuits on a project in the Black Hills National Forest in his home district. The plan was hard-fought and not at all popular with groups like the Sierra Club, which was one of the negotiating parties. But Daschle ultimately was able to win the grudging support of environmentalists, who perhaps feared losing Democratic control of the Senate.

Several congressional Republicans responded by introducing legislation to “Daschle-ize” the national forest, seeking broad new exemptions from the appeals and litigation. All the while, Republicans gloated over the position in which Daschle had put environmentalists and claimed that the Sierra Club had “given [Daschle] a pass based purely on election-year politics in South Dakota.” And Bush made a pointed reference to Daschle’s rule bending in his home district. “If it’s good enough for South Dakota, it’s good enough for Oregon,” Bush said last month.

Chad Hanson checks for damage on this mildly scorched tree marked for salvage logging.

Photo by Rachel Fazio

Many rank-and-file environmentalists have had to admit the Republicans were partly right. “Daschle sparked it. And he sparked it for political reasons,” says Craig Thomas, who heads up a coalition of more than 70 environmental groups called the Sierra Nevada Protection Campaign. But what Daschle did, through a long process of negotiation, and affecting a relatively small area, says Thomas, is quite different from what the Bush administration is proposing: a salvage-logging free-for-all throughout the national-forest system.

He likens the Bush proposal to the Salvage Logging Rider of 1995, in which Congress exempted salvage-logging projects from appeals and lawsuits, and which many environmentalists say led to a period of destructive, unrestrained commercial logging of the nation’s old-growth forests.

High on a hill in the Lassen National Forest, perhaps 50 feet from an overgrown, apparently abandoned logging road, stands an enormous sugar pine. It’s more than 100 feet tall and probably 200 years old, and it too wears a big blue H mark, signifying that it is a hazard to people.

Like many of the trees touched by the Storrie fire, the tree has a band of scorch around its base, no more than a foot or two up the trunk. If the crown of the tree was scorched, it isn’t apparent now, or it has grown back. Using a ball-point pen to nick the black bark, it is quickly apparent that the scorch goes no more than a couple of millimeters deep.

Thousands of these so-called “hazard trees” are included in the Storrie project, trees that ostensibly threaten to fall onto roads or trails and crush people but that are often green and healthy looking.

The Almanor Ranger District could not tell the News & Review what the volume of hazard trees was in the Storrie project, although Hanson estimates it at about 7 million board feet.

The hazard-trees issue is rarely discussed, wildlife biologist Monica Bond says, because the Forest Service is often vague about how much hazard-trees removal is going on. Whatever the outcome of the Storrie project, Bond says the hazard-trees issue will continue to be a problem throughout the Sierra because the Forest Service tends to slip them into timber sales to increase timber volume without much scrutiny.

“It’s just another giant loophole,” Bond charges. “There are millions of board feet of these hazard trees being logged all over the Sierras that shouldn’t be.”

But, on Aug. 22, the Forest Service regional office in Vallejo did a surprising thing: It rejected Hanson’s appeal on the Storrie project, but in the process it made an important “clarification.” In what has come to be known among local environmentalists as the “black-tree-only decision,” the regional forester in Vallejo, Jack Blackwell, directed the Almanor Ranger District to make sure that no trees with green foliage were cut.

Regional-forester spokesman Matt Mathes says the clarification had nothing to do with citizen appeals but was instead intended to bring the Lassen National Forest in line with the practices in other Sierra Nevada forests and with the Sierra Nevada Framework.

“It’s almost embarrassing. Each different national forest has been using a different definition of ‘dead,'” Mathes notes, adding that in the Tahoe National Forest, another area where the John Muir Project is active, forest officials long ago adopted a definition of dead that meant only “black and brown” trees with no green needles showing.

Wildlife biologist Monica Bond said the Forest Service uses loopholes to sell large, valuable trees that should be left alone.

Photo by Cosmo Garvin

Despite the change in direction, Mathes defends the Lassen National Forest’s definition of “dead.”

“If you look at the Christmas tree you have in your living room, it’s green, it looks alive. But you know it will be dead within a few days,” Mathes explains, noting that a tree in the forest may look healthy, but its needles will turn brown, and the tree will be obviously dead two or three years later.

Mathes also defends the way the Forest Service identified hazard trees for removal. “We’re not going to take any chances. Our policy is always to err on the side of safety and remove hazard trees that could fall across a road or into a campground.”

But several scientists who have visited the Storrie site say the Forest Service overreached. UC Davis botanist Dr. Edwin Royce says he studied several large trees in four different parts of the project and several more marked as hazard trees, including some in a protected spotted-owl nesting area. “We could find no evidence that any of these trees would die in the near future, and plenty of evidence to the contrary,” Royce concludes, adding that most of the proposed harvest would consist of green trees that otherwise would live.

Although the Forest Service maintains that citizen appeals had nothing to do with changing the Storrie project, Hanson is sure that the appeals were the only thing that saved thousands of green old-growth trees from destruction. “If they want to say it had nothing to do with us, that’s fine. They need to save face,” he says.

And, as environmentalists are celebrating the “black-trees-only decision,” the timber industry is lamenting another timber sale ruined by appeals.

“This is a classic example of ‘analysis paralysis,'” charges Phil Aune, vice president of the California Forestry Association, a timber-industry trade group based in Sacramento. He has been following the Storrie fire project since its inception and says that the appeals may have killed the project altogether. He thinks the Forest Service had the definition of “dead” right the first time. “I think they have a sound basis. The science says these trees are going to die,” he says.

But what frustrates him most is the dead timber that could have been removed two years ago, timber that has been steadily decaying and losing value as the appeals fight has dragged on. “It’s a no-brainer. It makes the most sense to cut dead timber before it all rots away.” Aune has walked the site on several occasions and says time has taken its toll on the project’s value.

As of press time, companies were waiting for the Almanor Ranger District to remeasure the project, but Aune’s not certain if any timber company will find the sale to be worthwhile. “The white fir is probably worthless by now. Most of the pine is probably worthless. It will be interesting to see if there’s any value at all left out there.”

However one looks at it, the Storrie Fire Project is going to be much less lucrative for the local Almanor Ranger District and potential bidders alike. Many estimate that, because of the Aug. 22 clarification, the total volume of the timber sale has dropped from 16 million board feet to closer to 5 million board feet.

Almanor District Ranger Susan Matthews says the Storrie project is a good example of how an individual using the appeals process can “put a stick in the spokes” after a decision has been made. “It certainly can add a lot of time onto projects that need to be implemented on a more straightforward timetable,” Matthews explains. She adds that other land-management agencies, such as the Bureau of Land Management and the Parks Service, are not subject to appeals of their decisions. “I think there is a better way for us to interact with the public,” she adds.

As of press time, the debate over Bush’s Healthy Forests Initiative was just getting under way in Congress. Several new pieces of legislation were going through committee that would streamline the appeals process.

More important, a deal appeared to be in the works between Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., and Sen. Larry Craig, R-Idaho, to pass an appropriations amendment (often referred to as a “rider") suspending the appeals process on fuels-thinning projects. Many of the environmental groups the News & Review talked to have been reluctant to criticize Feinstein. But Hanson says the amendment can be passed only with Feinstein’s cooperation. If the powerful Democratic senator goes through with the deal, he says, she’d be nothing more than a “timber-industry toadie.”

Cutting on the Storrie project will begin in October, if any company bids on it. All in all, Hanson says the project is still a bad one from his perspective. It does little to protect nearby communities from fire and makes little effort to take out small trees and saplings that are the biggest fire dangers. Still, it would have been worse, he says, if not for public response.

And, if Congress takes away citizens’ right to appeal projects such as the Storrie plan, Hanson adds, it will remove public scrutiny of projects that often have more to do with commercial logging than with forest health. Projects like the Storrie plan could go forward, unchecked, all over the Sierra and the nation.

Late last week, Hanson says, the Almanor Ranger District told him it was considering backing off removal of any hazard trees that had green foliage. If the district follows through, which was still undecided as of press time, it will be a final victory for Hanson in this far-flung stretch of the Sierra Nevada.

If not, Hansen will take the next step—one that will paralyze the project. “I’m going to sue them,” he insists.

Although some might accuse Hanson of being an obstructionist and doing whatever it takes to stop logging in national forests, he says his actions and the actions of other environmentalists actually brought the Storrie project more in line with its stated goals. "The reason they claimed they were doing it was to reduce fire risk. What they were going to do would have dramatically increased fire risk," Hanson maintains, because it would have taken out some of the biggest and most fire-resistant of our trees in the national forest.