SACRAMENTO, CALIFORNIA — When U.S. Undersecretary of Agriculture — and former timber lobbyist — Mark Rey praised California’s Sierra Nevada Framework as the "the best effort to date to lay out a blueprint to manage the forests of the Sierra Nevada," nobody was more pleasantly surprised than Craig Thomas.
"I just thought, holy shit. It was beautiful," recalls Thomas, who, as director of the Sierra Nevada Forest Protection Campaign, had worked for years on the unprecedented agreement to balance logging, fire management and natural habitat on 11 million acres of national forest in California (HCN, 8/27/01: Restoring the Range of Light).
The plan was held up as a model of public participation and collaboration involving environmental, timber and recreation groups. But it was approved in the last days of the Clinton presidency, and Thomas feared the Bush administration might try to water it down.
Instead, Rey and the Forest Service not only defended the plan against a slew of appeals by timber and off-highway vehicle groups, "they were even eloquent about it," says Thomas. So eloquent that, after Rey held a press conference promising the Bush administration’s commitment to the plan, Thomas was moved to proclaim, "Today the sun is shining on California’s Range of Light."
The sun didn’t shine for long. Three days later, on New Year’s Day 2002, the Forest Service’s new regional forester, Jack Blackwell, quietly announced that he was beginning a major overhaul of the Framework (HCN, 5/12/03: New forest plan leaves owls in a lurch).
Two years later, the Sierra Nevada Framework has never been implemented, despite the Bush administration’s early promises, and the plan’s widespread popularity. Instead, the Forest Service appears to have abandoned the broad public participation that marked the creation of the Framework, in favor of a slick marketing campaign that touts logging big trees as a way to combat wildfire.
Big trees will topple
The "Forests With a Future" proposal, unveiled by Blackwell in late January, would allow the logging of some 450 million board-feet of timber a year — almost triple the amount allowed under the Framework. The new plan also abandons restrictions on cutting in 4 million acres of old-growth forest, which were set aside for protection under the 2001 plan. Forest Service officials say the rules for "Old Forest Emphasis Areas" under the Framework were too complicated to implement.
"It all looked great on paper," says Matt Mathes, spokesman for the Forest Service’s Pacific Southwest region. "But it wasn’t a system we could make work on the ground."
Supporters of the Framework say some of the plan was complicated, because forests are complicated. "(Forests With a Future) totally fails to recognize the complexity of forest composition," says Thomas.
Glossy brochures sent out by the Forest Service claim that the new thinning plan will reduce catastrophic wildfire by 30 percent over the next 50 years — a number that critics charge is simply made up.
The Sierra Nevada Framework committed 75 percent of its budget to hazardous fuels treatment in areas near communities. Forests With a Future reduces that level to 50 percent. It allows more logging deeper in the forests, and permits the cutting of trees up to 30 inches in diameter. The Framework had limited the diameter to 20 inches in order to leave the larger, more fire-resistant trees standing.
Mathes says the Forest Service raised the diameter limit to help offset the cost of fuels reduction. "It costs about $800 an acre to do thinning. We have to pay somebody to do that. But a 28- to 30-inch tree has a lot of commercial value," Mathes explains, adding that "just two (big) trees per acre" can pay for removal of the hazardous small trees and brush.
But the shift away from fuels treatment near communities — and toward logging bigger trees deeper in the forest — is proof to critics that the plan has less to do with fire protection than it does with pumping up business for logging companies.
Process of elimination
The Bush administration is fond of talking about the virtues of collaboration, but the public was largely cut out of the new Sierra plan.
The original Framework was the result of nearly 200 public meetings. "It was a massive undertaking. There was endless opportunity for thought and opinion. And it was a scientifically sound process," says Jay Watson of The Wilderness Society. Forests With a Future, on the other hand, has been the product of six invitation-only field trips.
The process has angered not only environmental groups and their Democratic allies, such as Sens. Barbara Boxer and Dianne Feinstein, but the Republican administration of California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger as well.
Schwarzenegger had praised the Sierra Nevada Framework during his campaign last fall, promising voters: "If changes are needed to the Framework, I will ask the federal government to use the same thoughtful, inclusive process that led to its creation."
That thoughtful, inclusive process just didn’t happen, says Mike Chrisman, Schwarzenegger’s recently appointed secretary of Resources. "It was very frustrating. There was very little direct communication with the state."
Chrisman says he is close to presenting several recommendations for changes to the Forest Service proposal, though he won’t reveal specifics. He will say that he’s confident the state will soon "have a seat at the table" in shaping the Sierra Nevada forest plan.
The deadline for administrative appeals of the plan is April 29. If the Forest Service doesn’t make significant changes, Forests With a Future most likely has a future in court.
California Attorney General Bill Lockyer has said he will sue the Forest Service if necessary to protect the Framework. "The original Framework was the product of years of work by every group that had a stake," says Lockyer spokesman Tom Dresslar. "Before it ever had a chance to work, the Bush administration came in and changed it."
The author covers the environment for the Sacramento News and Review.
U.S. Forest Service 707-562-8737, www.forestsfuture.fs.fed.us.
Sierra Nevada Forest Protection Campaign 530-622-8718,