Restoring the Range of Light

In California, the Forest Service sets fires, protects big trees and owls, and leaves loggers in the lurch


Note: this front-page essay introduces the many shorter stories that this special issue on the Sierra Nevada comprises, all available in the "Related stories" section of this online issue.

We reserve big hype for dull events. A new presidential autobiography. A national energy program that will vanish more quickly than you can say "Jimmy Carter's synfuels program."

When events are truly exciting, we cloak them in gray because true change is threatening.

That is why the Forest Service's Sierra Nevada Framework - all 3,100 pages of it - at first seems like bureaucratic business as usual.

That is why, when members of the team that produced the decision visited environmental journalists at the University of California at Berkeley's Graduate School of Journalism this spring, they used humdrum terms. They talked about the Framework's five goals for guiding the 11 national forests covering 18,000 square miles that make up the Sierra Nevada. They emphasized that each national forest might interpret the Framework differently.

They said theirs was a short-term plan. At the most, they hoped to edge toward forests that would be a bit more friendly to the increasingly rare California spotted owl. Only small trees would be cut to limit forest fires. And away from towns and road corridors, the forests would be left alone. One consequence, they acknowledged, is a further weakening of California's already decimated timber industry.

In print or in person, the agency staffers didn't wax poetic. They didn't say the ultimate goal was to recreate John Muir's "Range of Light" by gradually replacing clogged and fire-prone forests with forests made up of relatively few trees towering over grassy plains.

So where is the revolution in this? It lies in the Framework's starting point.

Forest Service planning documents traditionally start by specifying commodity output: board feet, tons of forage, visitor days. Out of those goals flow miles of roads and fences to be built, stock watering holes to be dug, campgrounds to be built. The health of the land is always incidental, always an add-on.

The Framework starts with the health of the land. Rightly or wrongly, from that goal flows a low level of logging, reduction of grazing and off-road vehicle use, and the possibility that even horse use will be limited to prevent the spread of weeds.

This special issue of High Country News describes how this revolution came about. But the stories do not speculate on how the Bush administration will react to yet another time bomb from the Clinton administration.

That's because it probably doesn't matter if the Bush administration kills or approves the Framework. Either way, it will end up in court, brought there by its many foes and its many supporters.

Even the courts may not have the final say. The Framework's principles - and whether this revolution will be coming to a forest near you - depends on the reaction from the rest of the Forest Service.

California Regional Forester Brad Powell signed the document in the closing days of the Clinton administration. He could have stalled, letting the Bush administration kill the Framework and restart the already 10-year-old, thrice-failed process.

Why did Powell risk his career? Perhaps because he understands his agency's plight. He may have decided that the Forest Service had no choice but to follow a path determined by the Endangered Species Act, by the economic and political weakness of California's loggers and ranchers and small working towns, and by the strength of California's urban and environmental constituencies.

He signed it, most probably, because he thought it the best possible plan and he wanted to put it to the legal test and the "in-service" test. He wanted to see how his 29,000 colleagues in the Forest Service would come to view the Framework.

The Forest Service is an organization that has been publicly humiliated for the last 15 years by environmentalists, by the courts, by industry and by Congress. It is an agency that has lost to those interests the only power that counts: the power to manage its 300,000 square miles of land.

Young Forest Service employees have experienced nothing but this humiliation. But when Powell and the other leaders of his Framework team joined the United States Forest Service, it was the most respected land-management agency in the world, despite its dedication to overcutting.

The Sierra Nevada Framework is an attempt by the California region of the Forest Service to show the rest of the agency one way to regain its lost stature.

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