Sierra Standoff

Was the Forest Service claiming portions of Lassen National Forest were dead just so it could allow commercial logging to proceed? It was, until Chad Hanson came along.

“Dead” Trees.

“Dead” Trees.

Photo by Cosmo Garvin

Somewhere in the middle of the Lassen National Forest—exactly where would be tough to say without a global positioning device—Chad Hanson turns his Jeep sharply onto a dusty road that has been pounded so heavily by logging trucks that it has taken on 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 at a spot that seems to be nowhere in particular.

He takes out his water bottle to wash away some of the dust in his throat and 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, much of it quite pristine. 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. Department of Agriculture 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 this area; for hiking and camping in solitude, these woods can’t be beat. This stretch of forest, far from any human settlement, 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 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 public’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. Within its pages is a map, dotted with a patchwork of yellow, pink and gray blotches, with black and gray lines thrown on the page like spaghetti, that represent the logging roads that weave throughout the forest here.

“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.

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. As in all national forests controlled by the Forest Service, 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.

Actual dead trees.

Photo by Cosmo Garvin

Two years ago, a big wildfire called the Storrie fire (named for a tiny town miles away) swept through an area of 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 chopping and hauling out trees, called salvage logging, will be done by a private timber company that is awarded the contract, and will 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.

The contract is awarded on the basis of competitive bids, and the timber company with the highest bid wins the right to purchase and remove all the trees the Forest Service has marked for sale, and, in turn, sell the timber to a mill for processing, hopefully at a decent profit.

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,” and anything with an orange mark is to be left alone.

Trees with no markings, which far outnumber the orange-marked ones, are trees that will be cut. Still others, some of the largest, are marked by Forest Service employees 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 those 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 haircut that verges on a flat top, he looks a bit 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 said, 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.

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.

Activist Chad Hanson inspects mild scorching on a tree marked for salvage logging.

Photo by Cosmo Garvin

What the Forest Service is about to do, he says, 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.

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.

The experience galvanized Hanson’s environmentalism, but it also catapulted him into the middle of an internecine conflict within the Sierra Club. Hanson soon became one of the leaders of the John Muir Sierrans. (Muir was a naturalist and explorer who wrote extensively about the Sierra and founded the Sierra Club nearly a century ago.) It is a reform-minded faction of the Sierra Club that has, in the past, accused the Sierra Club’s leaders of being preoccupied with electing Democrats to office at the expense of accomplishing more concrete environmental goals. Along the way Hanson became friends with the late David Brower, the first executive director of the Sierra Club and a man once described as the “most militant conservationist in the world.” It was during Brower’s tenure in the 1950s and 1960s that the club became the political force it is today, but Brower himself was forced to step down as director in 1969 because he was thought to be too radical.

Hanson also has a reputation for being uncompromising and radical. Some of his fellow 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 David Brower’s Earth Island Institute, the environmental organization Brower formed after he left the Sierra Club. 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 for the government, 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 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. 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 officials argue that some large, commercially valuable trees must be removed occasionally to help pay for the costs of thinning.

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 offer the Almanor Ranger District got for 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.

Cohasset, Ca., resident Trish Puterbaugh said the Storrie project blatantly violates the Sierra Nevada Framework.

Photo by Tom Angel

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

If you were on your way to the Storrie project area and driving on Humboldt Road into the forest for some hiking, or just snooping around, you might stop in the tiny town of Butte Meadows 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. “No? Are you sure?” And you might get the distinct impression that the clerks wouldn’t mind if the customers lingered a bit longer. Business seems a little slow out here in the woods.

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,” said Trish Puterbaugh, who lives in the town of Cohasset, also in the Lassen National Forest.

Unlike Hanson, Puterbaugh isn’t completely opposed to all commercial operations in national forests. But she 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 said. 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 Mountain 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 said. But the Almanor Ranger District wouldn’t budge. “They told me this was a do-or-die project,” she said, 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,” said 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,” he added.

The Storrie project is far from large communities and far removed from public scrutiny.

Ironically, it was the Democrats, the supposed allies of the environmental community, that 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 Daschle’s 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.

Many rank-and-file environmentalists have had to admit the Republicans were partly right. “Daschle sparked it. And he sparked it for political reasons,” said 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, said Thomas, is quite different from what the Bush administration is proposing: a salvage-logging free-for-all throughout the national-forest system. He likened 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, for now, 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 six inches 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.

There are thousands of these so-called “hazard trees” 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 SN&R what the volume of hazard trees was in the Storrie project, although Hanson estimated it at about 7 million board feet.

The hazard-tree issue is rarely discussed, wildlife biologist Monica Bond said, because the Forest Service is often vague about how much hazard-tree removal is going on. Whatever the outcome of the Storrie project, Bond said the hazard-tree issue would 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 said. “There are millions of board feet of these hazard trees being logged all over the Sierras that shouldn’t be,” she added.

But, on August 22, the Forest Service regional office in Vallejo did a strange 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 spokesperson Matt Mathes said 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 noted, adding that in the Tahoe National Forest, another area where the John Muir Project is active, forest officials there long ago adopted a definition of dead that meant only “black and brown” trees with no green needles showing.

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

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

Photo by Rachel Fazio

“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 explained, 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 defended 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,” he said.

But several scientists who have visited the Storrie site say the Forest Service overreached. UC Davis botanist Dr. Edwin Royce said 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 will die in the near future, and plenty of evidence to the contrary,” Royce concluded, adding that most of the proposed harvest would consist of green trees that otherwise would live. The sale, he remarked, “cannot be justified on the basis that the trees will die and decay in the near future or that any but an exceptional few will become hazards in the near future.”

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 said.

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,” said 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 said.

But he said 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 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 said time has taken its toll on the project’s value. As of press time, Aune said companies were waiting for the Almanor Ranger District to remeasure the project, but, as it is, he’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,” he said.

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. The total volume of the timber sale before the August 22 clarification was about 16 million board feet. The sale still needs to be remeasured, but many estimate it’s now closer to 5 million board feet.

Almanor District Ranger Susan Matthews said 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 said. She added 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 said.

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

Cutting on the Storrie project would begin in October, if any company bids on it. All in all, Hanson said 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 could have been worse, would have been worse, he said, if not for public input on the project.

And, if Congress takes away citizens’ right to appeal projects like the Storrie plan, Hanson said, it would remove public scrutiny and input on 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 said the Almanor Ranger District had 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 would 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 said.

Although some might accuse Hanson of being an obstructionist and doing whatever it takes to stop logging in national forests, he said 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 is to reduce fire risk. What they were going to do would have dramatically increased fire risk,” Hanson maintained, because it would have taken out some of the biggest and most fire-resistant of our trees in the national forest.