Sierra Framework treads between protection, treatment

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While everyone agrees that the Sierra Nevada's vast forests and its creatures are in trouble, no one knows for sure how the U.S. Forest Service can restore the range to a condition that inspires rather than alarms - not even the authors of the agency's 3,100-page Sierra Nevada Framework.

The usual characters are present - spotted owls, only this time the California subspecies, the timber industry, local communities, ranchers and environmentalists. But the relative power each holds has been turned upside down by the Framework's basic tenet of preserving old trees for wildlife.

The Framework puts 40 percent of all national forest land into "old-growth emphasis areas" where logging is banned. It halts the cutting of trees over 30 inches everywhere, and in most places no trees over 20 inches can be touched.

This is radical stuff for an agency that focused for decades on cutting only the biggest trees. And, predictably, it has set off an intense debate over the wisdom - scientific and social - of such an approach.

Critics, including a few with environmental credentials, have appealed the plan in large numbers. It does little, they say, to address the main threat to the forests, and therefore to the owls - fire. They worry that the plan relies too much on an untested approach to controlling big wildfires.

Many of the critics would like to see the Forest Service thin and clear forests aggressively, through mechanical treatments, including the logging of larger trees than the Framework allows. Such an approach would also support a small timber industry and pay for fire prevention through timber sales. In contrast, the agency's plan will require large subsidies from Congress.

Defenders of the plan are equally vociferous. Logging of big trees got the forest in the mess it is in, they say; more logging will create more of the same.

The "Range of Light"

"Working-class gorgeous" is how Linda Blum of Quincy, Calif., describes the northern part of the Sierra Nevada, with its rolling tree-covered ridges and mountains. It is the north that attracts journalists to write about closed timber mills and dying timber towns.

As you move south, the range grows higher. The solid green of mixed-conifer forests gives way to vast granite exposures, high alpine expanses and towering peaks. And it is the south - Yosemite and Sequoia/Kings Canyon National Parks, Lake Tahoe and Mount Whitney - that attracts tourists.

The Sierras show even more diversity from west to east. Starting from the Central Valley, you climb gradually through grasslands and oak, and then rise into conifer forests. In its middle and southern ranges, the Sierras crest in a spectacular series of high peaks, and then plunge steeply eastward into the Great Basin. On this east side, the Sierras are covered with juniper and sage, much like the arid Interior West.

The Framework pays most attention to the broad western slope of the Sierras. The area is blasted most winters with Pacific storms that can deliver several feet of wet snow in one day. Thanks to accompanying mild temperatures, the moisture and soil combine to grow one of the most productive and diverse conifer forests in the world.

Winters here are followed by hot, dry summers. Before fire suppression, Indians managed the forest with fire, and lightning ignited more remote and higher regions. The flames of those fires licked away the brush and small trees, creating open, park-like, grassy forests. It is their beauty, as well as the way light gleamed on the granite of features like Half Dome and El Capitan, that led John Muir to describe the Sierras as the "Range of Light."

Small, ground-hugging fires are gone now; also gone are the forests Muir loved. After 100 years of fire suppression and a longer history of logging, "there is a serious lack of big trees," says Thomas Bonnicksen, a forest ecologist at Texas A&M University. Bonnicksen has done research in the Sierras for 30 years.

White fir and other trees that grow well in shade are replacing the grand sugar and Jeffery pine trees that once dominated the Sierra landscape. Now, the forest is threatened by catastrophic wildfires, the kind that can cook the ground. Small trees provide a ladder for fire to surge into the crowns of bigger trees.

"The Sierras present an incredible challenge because the forests there are so productive and generate so much fuel," says Jerry Franklin, a forest ecology professor at the University of Washington.

Franklin says choked forests are not the only problem. Lower-elevation hardwood stands are also changing because of fire suppression and urbanization. Grassy meadows are invaded by trees and brush. Weeds are everywhere. Streams are turned on and off like faucets to generate electricity. Careless grazing has damaged meadows and streams.

The Framework addresses most of these problems, and they are all important. But even though ranchers and off-road vehicle riders clamor for attention to their quarrels with the Framework, most eyes are riveted on the mid-elevation west-side coniferous forest.

This is where the Forest Service tries to juggle everything at once - the threat of wildfire, the desire to once again have large trees with a grassy understory, and the needs of a variety of native wildlife such as the Pacific fisher, willow flycatcher, and the symbolically charged California spotted owl.

The controversy

At the heart of the Framework is a balancing act. Most people agree that the Framework was shaped by a struggle between the Forest Service, with its concerns about wildfires, and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, with its imperative to save the spotted owl under the Endangered Species Act.

Like Solomon, the Forest Service must divide the forest: It will aggressively "treat" dense forests around towns and roads and subdivisions, while the rest of the Sierra range gets treated with kid gloves.

Kid gloves means setting aside "old-growth emphasis areas" and 600 to 2,400 acres of habitat left untouched around each owl nest. Overall, most of the 18,000 square miles of the 11 national forests in this plan will be protected from any kind of logging.

Will this create a forest owls can thrive in? So far, we can only guess. We know the birds like forests that produce flying squirrels and dusky woodrats. We also know from field researchers that the owl is surprisingly docile; it will watch calmly from its nest tree as researchers measure trees or take pictures - something they've been doing for 15 years.

Yet no one knows what the owl needs on a forest-wide scale.

Nor do they know much about why it has declined, or even how severe the decline is; whether it's long-term or just a temporary setback caused by a series of recent severe spring storms that killed off generations of newborn owls.

If researchers don't know much about the present, they know even less about the future. How will the owls and their prey react to more open forests? In the face of this uncertainty, the Forest Service's Framework leaves the forests as untouched as possible while it does more studies.

Michael Jackson, an outspoken member of the Quincy Library Group, which drew up a forest management plan for the Plumas National Forest (HCN, 9/29/97: The timber wars evolve into a divisive attempt at peace), says waiting for answers is a mistake. "The idea that in the face of uncertainty you stop is ludicrous. You have to make some decisions, or we're going to have a fire that starts in Truckee and burns to Oregon, 300 miles away."

Jared Verner disagrees. The retired owl biologist for the Forest Service is the author of interim guidelines, dubbed CASPO, that were put in place in 1993 to protect spotted owls. Verner says the latest plan has a short range, and "we won't do enough damage to the forest in 10 or 15 years that we will not be able to change course after we do the necessary studies."

Chris Nance, spokesman for the California Forestry Association, sees the damage as irrevocable. He says the forests are producing over 2 billion board-feet of growth a year, yet the plan only calls for the mechanical removal of 191 million board-feet. "The plan simply fails to address the issue of overstocked stands," he warns.

The Forest Service doesn't deny that its approach makes wildfires more likely. But it believes the Framework will also make the owls' survival more likely.

To buy time for research, the agency will use SPLATS, an unfortunate acronym for logged areas called "strategically placed area treatment sites." SPLATS punctuate dense forests with thinned areas designed to break a fire's momentum. Critics contend the theory is untried and shouldn't be applied on a wide scale.

Seeing the forest

Restoration and preservation of old-forest ecosystems is one of the Framework's main goals. But when you ask scientists what an old-growth forest ecosystem should look like, no consensus exists.

Washington state ecologist Jerry Franklin, who helped shape the Northwest Forest Plan, calls the Sierra Nevada Framework "an extraordinary improvement" over the agency's two earlier efforts to plan the future of the Sierras. But, he says, the Framework will only work if the Forest Service gets into the woods with "the aggressive and well-funded use of fire. You have got to get fire back into these ecosystems."

Forest ecologist Thomas Bonnicksen may agree with the last statement, but he would disagree about the quality of the plan. "What the Forest Service is doing is basically more forest engineering," he says, "and every time that humans have tried to engineer forests we have screwed them up."

Bonnicksen would like the Forest Service to set a benchmark for its goals: the condition of the Sierra at the time of European contact. The Framework is backward, he thinks, because it will reduce biodiversity while also increasing the risk of severe fires.

"You can create a forest with big trees and spotted owls flying around like moths; that still doesn't mean that you have a healthy and sustainable forest," he says.

Bonnicksen says that even where mechanical treatments occur, they don't go far enough to create the patchy and complex forest that existed before Europeans arrived.

"Thinning from below will result in a forest dominated by shade-tolerant species; you've got to take out some big trees if you want pines. There is nothing incompatible between managing for biodiversity and having a timber industry," he says.

The Forest Service is banking that prescribed fire and natural processes such as insect infestations and forest-clearing blowdowns will address some of Bonnicksen's concerns. The agency says this will open patches in the forest that the sun reaches, allowing pines to flourish.

Those who praise the Framework say the Forest Service has asked exactly the right questions about ecosystem health and gotten the right answers: We need less logging and grazing; we need more old trees and owls.

Yet critics like Bonnicksen say the narrow focus on the spotted owl and public concern about clear-cuts led the Forest Service away from asking two better questions:

What kind of forests do people as well as wildlife want? And how do we continue to produce in an ecologically healthy way the timber that the country uses?

Copyright © 2001 HCN and Lance Criley

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