A quiet victory in Quincy

  • QLG co-founders (L) Bill Coates, Michael Jackson, Tom Nelson

    Jane Braxton Little
 

QUINCY, Calif. - The day after President Clinton signed the Quincy Library Group's forest management plan into law on Oct. 22, members of the grassroots coalition celebrated with a sparkling cider toast. That was it. No Main Street parade. No victory banner across the Plumas County Courthouse.

After five years of planning, plotting and politicking their controversial proposal for 2.5 million acres of national forest land in the northern Sierra Nevada (HCN, 9/29/97), the poster children for collaborative conservation efforts are weary.

"It's been a long struggle," says Bill Coates, a former Plumas County supervisor and group co-founder. "We've been ready for a party for months, but we can hardly believe this moment has actually come to pass."

After surviving a bruising battle with environmentalists from the local to the national level, Quincy Library Group members are also wary of the next onslaught. Gun-shy from attacks in national newspaper ads and a barrage of often-personal criticism, the coalition members fear the approval of their legislation will invite another assault.

Bracing for the next round

They're right. Environmentalists who fought to prevent passage of the Quincy bill are now poised to scrutinize the Forest Service's environmental impact statement, required before any project work can begin. They may contest it in court if it does not meet all legal requirements, says Louis Blumberg, a spokesman for The Wilderness Society in San Francisco.

The battle has also prepared environmentalists across the country for possible future legislation promoting local control of federal resources. Opponents who were initially hesitant to get involved out of respect for the Quincy environmentalists will not waver the next time, says Steve Evans, conservation director for Friends of the River in Sacramento.

"The next QLG-type proposal that goes to Congress will be under full attack right out of the gate," he says.

It's heavy artillery for a proposal intended to bury the hatchet. The Quincy coalition formed in 1993 after Coates and Tom Nelson, a Sierra Pacific Industries forester, asked Michael Jackson, an environmental attorney, to work with them to salvage the local economy. Traditional enemies, Coates and Jackson developed a plan designed to protect wilderness and roadless areas while providing timber for local sawmills, the mainstay of the rural economy. The group they formed took its name from the only neutral meeting place they could agree upon. It attracted anglers and business owners, school officials and timber union leaders who have gathered once a month since 1993.

Their plan calls for removing small trees and brush from up to 60,000 acres a year to reduce the threat of wildfire on the Plumas and Lassen national forests and the Sierraville District of the Tahoe National Forest. Loggers will also harvest timber on around 9,000 acres annually, one tree at a time or in two-acre clear-cut blocks. The plan makes about 500,000 acres of national forestland off-limits to logging and protects watersheds, riparian and ecologically sensitive areas during a five-year demonstration period.

The grassroots proposal drew little serious opposition until the coalition sought help from Washington. Frustrated by the plodding pace of the U.S. Forest Service and fearful that it would atrophy from inaction, in 1995 Coates, Jackson and Nelson took their plan to Rep. Wally Herger, R-Calif. The legislation Herger introduced sailed through the House in July 1997 on a 429-1 vote.

California Sens. Dianne Feinstein and Barbara Boxer, both Democrats, co-sponsored it in the Senate. But Boxer, under pressure from environmentalists and in a tight re-election race, withdrew her support and blocked the legislation from going to a debate and vote before the full Senate. In October, Feinstein attached it as a rider to the 1999 federal spending bill and, with Herger, lobbied for the support it needed to survive congressional opposition and the threat of a presidential veto. Now that it is law, says Matt Mathes, a Forest Service spokesman in San Francisco, the Forest Service will "make it work," setting an ambitious 300-day deadline to complete the environmental impact statement.

Collaboration gets a trial run

The most controversial aspect of the Quincy plan is the small-tree thinning to reduce the threat of forest fire. Alliance members say the 60,000-acre annual fuel breaks will protect their communities and the forest ecosystem. Critics say it's business as usual, since the projects will produce enough logs to keep Sierra Pacific's four local sawmills in operation.

Whether the fuel breaks are a threat to forest ecosystems or a necessary safety measure, the Quincy plan proves that wildfire is a political buzzword powerful enough to bring traditional opponents together. The common ground Coates and Jackson found in Quincy in 1993 allowed Herger and Feinstein to work together in Washington. The image of old foes cooperating to solve mutual problems has made the group a fabled example of collaboration.

"This is an example of what can be accomplished when Republicans and Democrats work together. It's very heartening for collaboration groups all over the country," says Jackson.

The strength of the Quincy group's famous - or infamous - collaboration will be put to the test as Forest Service managers begin marking real trees for real chainsaws to cut. It's a test of the Forest Service as well. The challenge for the agency will be to meet the larger ecosystem goals, says Evans of Friends of the River, instead of just meeting the acreage targets set by Congress. Many eyes will be watching both the Forest Service and the Library Group.

All that scrutiny can only be good for the woods, says Lynn Jungwirth, chair of the Seventh American Forest Congress Communities Committee. It will force the Quincy Library Group and the Forest Service to do their most conscientious work and to scrupulously monitor the results.

"There's so much pressure to do it right that I'm hopeful," says Jungwirth. "If the forest benefits, nobody loses."

Jane Braxton Little writes from Plumas County, Calif.

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