Modern-day Muir copes with victory

  • Craig Thomas


Craig Thomas, 56, has been hanged in effigy, had his property vandalized and his life threatened. Yet he says he feels like the luckiest guy living in the Sierra Nevada: "I actually get paid to keep this mountain range intact," he says.

Thomas works for the Sierra Nevada Forest Protection Campaign, a coalition of 72 environmental organizations ranging from tiny community groups to heavyweights like the National Resources Defense Council and the Sierra Club. He serves as the coalition's eyes, ears and mouth.

He reads government volumes and listens to testimony at hearings, distilling an ocean of data into its important points. "It's a never-ending thing," he says.

Thomas, who lives in the Placerville area, has gained an almost encyclopedic knowledge of the six-volume environmental impact statement that lies behind the Sierra Nevada Framework. You know that's true, because when he refers to some fact or statistic, he'll usually cite the report and page number where he found it.

While he has lambasted the Forest Service in years past, this time he and the Forest Protection Campaign have found something to cheer about. The Framework is not just a "pretty damn good decision," he says, but a "landmark." It walks a tightrope between protecting forest ecosystems and preventing wildfire, he says, and it mandates evaluating results quickly - in a decade.

Of the campaign's member groups, only two - the Pacific Rivers Council and the Center for Biological Diversity - have appealed the plan. Their objections are focused on the needs of riparian areas rather than forests, logging and fire.

Thomas says the Framework's strength lies in a specificity that makes it ecologically and legally defensible. It states where wildfire may burn while limiting how large a tree can be cut and where. Critics rail against this same specificity, arguing that the plan fails to protect against wildfires.

But to Thomas, logging medium-size and big trees is no longer ecologically defensible. What's at issue, he believes, is how much logging, which the Forest Service calls fire-prevention "treatment," is necessary. "That's what this whole thing turns on."

Only 10 years ago, Thomas recalls, he was part of a two-front struggle, opposing both the logging industry and the Forest Service. Today, he says, the agency has "quit lying" and begun to see the public land it manages as ecosystems. Only the logging industry has failed to see that it can't keep taking the big trees, he says.

Thomas says he finds himself in a new role: "I call it coping with victory."

He has already traveled to Washington, D.C., to lobby the Bush administration, and he's reviewing the 234 appeals to the Sierra Nevada Framework, preparing rebuttals to the half-dozen that he considers a serious threat.

"Our goal is to follow through," he says, "to make sure people are doing what they are supposed to be doing."

Copyright © 2001 HCN and Sam Kennedy

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