National groups object to grassroots power in D.C.

 

The Quincy Library Group has been toasted from the Sierra Nevada to Pennsylvania Avenue, its grassroots plan to manage 2.5 million acres of national forest land hailed as a win-win for the ecosystem and for the local economy.

But when Rep. Wally Herger, R-Calif., introduced legislation Feb. 27, to make the plan federal law, 19 environmental groups came out of the woods to declare themselves - and the environment - big losers.

What happened?

The battle now raging over legislation is about the process of collaboration and the tension between grassroots and national groups over federal-land management.

The group's plan grew out of a drop in federal timber harvests which was wiping out timber jobs in the northern Sierra Nevada mountains of California. Plumas County Supervisor Bill Coates, a staunch advocate of the timber industry, sought out Michael Jackson, an outspoken environmental attorney, and in 1993, they agreed to work together for the rural community they both called home.

With Tom Nelson, a forester for Sierra Pacific Industries, they formed a coalition of local civic, business and environmental leaders, naming it for the local library, the only neutral territory where they could agree to meet (HCN, 5/13/96). Their proposal for the Plumas, Lassen and Tahoe national forests would protect 650,000 acres of roadless and environmentally sensitive areas while allowing enough logging to maintain operations at local sawmills.

To reduce the threat of fire, their plan also calls for removing timber - much of it dead and dying - from up to 60,000 acres a year. In addition, it would allow logging on over 1 million acres, with trees harvested in blocks as large as three acres. Watersheds would be restored and all of the work monitored to determine its effect on forest health.

Major environmental organizations praised the plan. Says David Edelson, an attorney with the Natural Resources Defense Council, "We were hoping for something that would warrant wide-spread support," Edelson says.

But they didn't get it in Herger's bill, the Quincy Library Group Forest Recovery and Economic Stability Act of 1997. The legislation's proposal for a five-year experiment on the northern third of the Sierra Nevada's national forests is too long and too much, says Frannie Hoover, a regional representative with the Sierra Club.

The act would dramatically increase logging - by as much as twice the volume removed in recent years - using experimental techniques, says Louis Blumberg, a spokesman for The Wilderness Society. And it makes no mention of watershed restoration or monitoring, key elements in the Quincy Library Group plan, says Steve Evans, conservation director for Friends of the River in Sacramento.

Critics say the bill's biggest problem is failing to comply with the National Environmental Policy Act and other regulations, including 1993 guidelines to protect the California spotted owl.

Jackson, the group's most vocal environmentalist, adamantly denies the charges. Although Herger's bill needs to be clarified, he says, it has never included any measure to bypass current laws protecting the environment. The logging methods Blumberg calls experimental were recommended by scientists in a 1996 comprehensive study of the Sierra Nevada ecosystem funded by Congress, Jackson says. And Blumberg himself, along with Edelson, endorsed the timber-harvest levels allowed in the plan when they were part of a 1986 proposal for managing the Plumas National Forest, says Jackson.

"They think they can get a better deal now that the timber industry is on its knees. They're mad at us because we're going to let it up to do the right thing," Jackson says.

But it's more than the amount and methods of timber removal that have many environmentalists alarmed.

Three years ago the Quincy coalition began bypassing the local and national Forest Service bureaucracy to lobby Clinton administration officials, chiefly Jim Lyons, a U.S. Department of Agriculture undersecretary, along with Herger and other elected representatives. Members went to Washington, D.C., negotiating in a process former chief of the Forest Service Jack Ward Thomas called "brokering" national forest land.

They were rewarded in 1995 when Secretary of Agriculture Dan Glickman committed $4.7 million to the U.S. Forest Service for fuel reduction, watershed restoration and other projects consistent with the Quincy Library Group's approach. Herger's legislation is another product of the lobbying effort. Without the bill, Forest Service management will continue to vacillate, driven by ambiguous demands from a Congress in constant flux, says Bill Coates, the Quincy Group's chairman.

But it is the legislation which has caused the alienation of some regional and national environmentalists, says Blumberg. Instead of making changes locally, the group turned to the highest level of government for land management decisions - the very top-down pattern the group said it was trying to avoid.

If the land at stake were private, the decision-making process would simply be a failure of collaboration, Blumberg says, but because the legislation imposes a mandate on public land owned by all Americans, the process used by the Quincy Library Group sets a dangerous precedent for all grassroots efforts.

"Collaboration is about local involvement, not local control," says Blumberg.

Jackson dismisses his criticisms as the response of national group leaders accustomed to dictating the terms of environmental policy to their soldiers in the field. "They think we are a mortal threat to the national environmental movement," Jackson says.

Those who agree with Jackson include Laurel Ames, executive director of the Sierra Nevada Alliance representing 45 grassroots environmental groups. The Quincy Library Group embodies a shift in the way natural resource decisions are made by adding the involvement of local people to traditional interest groups, says Ames. "We are in a new era."

Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., has agreed to introduce Quincy Library Group legislation, but it will not be identical to Herger's, says Susan Kennedy, Feinstein's aide.

For more information about the bill, call the office of Rep. Wally Herger, 202/225-3076.

Jane Braxton Little reports from Greenville, California.

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