Career bureaucrat blazes a new trail

  • MAN WITH A PLAN: Brad Powell and the Sierra Nevada Framework's EIS

    Ann Brower

By nature and by training, Brad Powell, regional forester for all of California, could never be called a "bunny-lover." Yet the forest plan he signed on Jan. 12 has most environmentalists cheering.

Activists were happy because the Sierra Nevada Framework is more concerned with critters such as owls than with timber volumes. It sets fires rather than battling them, and it emphasizes allowing old trees to grow older while it minimizes logging.

Brad Powell's role was crucial: If he hadn't signed, the plan would have languished, leaving a decision up to a George W. Bush appointee.

Yet Powell, for most of his career, focused on cutting trees. He started on a U.S. Forest Service helicopter fire crew in 1969, and came up through the ranks of an agency that dealt in quantifiable outputs of board feet, animal unit months and miles of road built. In fact, his last post before coming to California was as head of his agency's highest commodity producer - the Tongass National Forest in Alaska.

If anyone was "an old Forest Service guy," says George Frampton, who headed the Council for Environmental Quality under President Clinton, it was Powell. Yet in the Sierra Nevada, Powell says with some pride, he and the Forest Service aimed for ecological health first and worked a timber and grazing plan around it. "To me," Powell says, "that just makes common sense."

Try, try again

The Framework Project was the Forest Service's fourth attempt at a comprehensive plan for the 18,000 square miles of land it manages in and around the Sierra Nevada range. In 1996, a document that had been two years in the making was halted by then-Undersecretary of Agriculture Jim Lyons on its way to the printer. Two earlier plans were stalled by the power of the Endangered Species Act.

Lyons says he yanked a third plan because he feared another forest takeover by the courts. "Putting this on the street, facing the likelihood of a challenge, and then being shot down again would just destroy our credibility," he says. When Powell arrived in California in December 1998, the Forest Service had just started over again.

After three failed attempts, it was beginning to look as though the agency could not manage the ground in the political environment of the 1990s. But if the Forest Service could not figure out how to run its forests according to new national values, there were those who wanted to give it a try. Another federal agency, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, as well as environmental groups, were waiting in the wings, with the threat of listing the owl as endangered. Such a listing would hand control of the forests to the courts and to the Fish and Wildlife Service.

But Powell's team had advantages that earlier attempts did not. First, it knew better than to go the old commodity-production route. Second, EIS team leader Steve Clauson says this time they had an "open checkbook." They used that checkbook to enlist over 150 agency people in an interdisciplinary effort. This time, Clauson says, the team was determined that the environmental impact statement would stick.

"We were spending $6 million a year with nothing coming out the other end. No one wanted a new EIS," he says.

That conviction pushed the agency toward a "new paradigm," he says. "We thought about organizing it around timber, but there was no support in the agency, and no support in the Sierra Nevada." Timber, he says, was no longer seen as driving the region's economy.

Clauson says EIS team members from all over the state worked late into the nights and weekends in Sacramento, separated from their families. Clauson lived in an RV for a year and a half - "a nice RV," he says dryly.

Finally, on Dec. 14, 2000, Clauson recalls, the team was told to move into the home stretch. "We then spent our holiday season doing the Record of Decision, working 12 and 14 hours a day," in order to send the final EIS to the printer Dec. 21.

Down to the wire

Getting the EIS in print was one thing; getting the Record of Decision signed was another. Maneuvering came down to the start of a new presidency.

Michael Jackson, a founder of the Quincy Library Group, recalls that California Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D, and other supporters of the community-based Sierra group pleaded with Powell to give the incoming Bush administration a chance to review the document. From the other direction came calls from inside the Clinton administration. It had been pushing in an ecosystem direction for years, and staffers wanted the Sierra Nevada plan finished on their watch. Frampton says, "We were honor bound to finish this thing, and embarrassed that it had taken so long."

Then an amazing calm set in: Agency staffers say that in the confusion over who would actually become U.S. president, outside political pressures fell away. The Forest Service found itself on its own, with the decision left to Brad Powell.

Powell could have taken a brief vacation, and ducked the issue. Instead, he signed the Framework eight days before Bush's inauguration. Michael Jackson says that by acting decisively, Powell effectively ended his career. The Framework will prove to be a bad decision, Jackson believes.

But when asked why Powell would approve a plan that would almost certainly be unpopular with the incoming administration, Jackson shrugs and says, "I guess he believed in it."

Frampton agrees. "Brad is standing for things that represent a new direction for the Forest Service."

Powell says, "My intent wasn't to do something radically different. (It was to) take a hard look at our responsibilities, and look to the future."


Copyright © 2001 HCN and Ann Brower

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