The Forest Service spent the last days of the Clinton administration thinking big. First came the ban on roadbuilding in 58.5 million acres of national forest land (HCN, 1/29/01: Roadless plan slides to safety). Then, just a week before the Bush inauguration, the agency released its final plan for 11 national forests in the Sierra Nevada.
Eight years in the making and 1,800 pages long, the Sierra Framework will affect 11.5 million acres of rugged, conifer-covered land stretching from the Oregon border to Bakersfield, Calif.
Despite the huge scale of the plan, Forest Service officials are attempting a delicate dance. They aim to protect wildlife and water quality in the Sierra: by establishing an old-growth reserve system, and by using limited logging to dilute the danger of large-scale wildfires.
Whether the agency can keep its footing remains to be seen. Opponents have criticized everything from the science to the sentence structure, and they have already asked the new Bush administration to modify the framework.
A cautious approach
The new plan proposes dramatic changes in forest management. Under the Sierra Framework, one-third of the land - about 4 million acres - is identified as old-growth forest reserve. Along with the 2.6 million acres already designated as wilderness and wild and scenic river areas, this network will be managed for old-growth forest conditions.
Logging in the Sierra Nevada will be limited to 191 million board-feet each year for the next five years, less than a fifth of the region's mid-1980s high of 1 billion board-feet. In 2006, annual timber harvests will plunge even further, down to 108 million board-feet. The plan prohibits cutting trees over 30 inches in diameter throughout the Sierra, and on the drier, more fragile east side of the range, the maximum diameter will be 24 inches.
Bradley Powell, the top Forest Service official for the Southwest region, says the Forest Service has a legal responsibility to protect the California spotted owl and other old-growth dependent species.
But reducing the risk of forest fires, he adds, is an equally important responsibility. Recent influxes of urban refugees and a century of fire suppression have combined to make wildfire a major political issue. Removing the younger, smaller trees, which carry fire across the landscape, will protect the older, larger trees that provide habitat for owls and other wildlife, says Powell.
The Forest Service has proposed using prescribed fire to eliminate ground fuels in areas farthest from communities. Near cities and towns, the agency will use chain saws and other mechanical equipment.
The framework puts a priority on thinning forest fuels in areas closest to human populations, says Powell, "a cautious approach that recognizes we don't fully understand the effects of thinning on areas that are important to wildlife."
Prescription for extinction?
Many environmentalists are applauding the new plan as a new dawn for the Sierra. Craig Thomas, conservation director for the Sierra Nevada Forest Protection Campaign, an environmental group, says the plan begins the process of protecting and restoring ecosystems degraded by decades of logging and road building.
But the timber industry has already promised to appeal the framework, which takes effect Feb. 12. The Sierra Framework is "a disastrous plan" that fails to preserve old-growth trees and fails to reduce the risk of catastrophic wildfire, said Chris Nance, a spokesman for California Forestry Association.
Members of the Quincy Library Group, a coalition of local residents and timber-industry representatives, have also criticized the framework. The group developed a five-year demonstration plan to manage three national forests in the northern Sierra, and Congress turned that plan into law in 1998 (HCN, 11/9/98: A quiet victory in Quincy). But the framework eliminates nearly half of the two-acre clearcuts planned by the Quincy group, and reduces the acreage slated for fuels reduction.
Michael Jackson, an environmental attorney and co-founder of the group, calls the framework "a prescription for extinction" of the California spotted owl. He argues that the timber harvest levels are too low to reduce the fire danger.
"At the rate we're now burning down forests, all spotted owl habitat will be gone in 50 years," Jackson says. He believes the new plan may violate the 1998 law.
The national forests involved in the Quincy experiment have been targeted for nearly two-thirds of all timber cutting in the Sierra, and Powell says the framework implements the key elements of the 1998 law.
California Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D, isn't convinced. As sponsor of the Quincy legislation with Republican Rep. Wally Herger, Feinstein has urged new Agriculture Secretary Ann Veneman to review guidelines that limit logging large trees and building fuel breaks. She is not opposed to the Sierra Framework itself, says Feinstein spokesman Howard Gantman.
Herger, a timber industry advocate, is opposed to the plan. Daniel MacLean, Herger's press scretary, calls the framework "a dark-of-night regulatory order." Herger bashed Forest Service officials for ignoring "new science" and is calling for reversing the Sierra Framework "in any way possible."
Craig Thomas calls the framework's science impeccable, and "the plan's strong point."
Opponents have 90 days to file appeals contesting the Sierra Framework with the chief of the Forest Service. Although it has seldom been used, the power to review the chief's decisions resides with the secretary of Agriculture.
Jane Braxton Little is a freelance writer based in Plumas County, California.
You can contact ...
- Rick Alexander, U.S. Forest Service, Sierra Nevada Framework Project, 801 I St., Room 419, Sacramento, CA 95814 (916-492-7570);
- Craig Thomas, Sierra Nevada Forest Protection Campaign, 6221 Shoo Fly Road, Kelsey, CA 95667 (530-622-8718);
- California Forestry Association, 1215 K St., Sacramento, CA 95814 (916-444-6592).
Copyright 2001 HCN and Jane Braxton Little