Everyone helps a California forest - except the Forest Service

  • Map of Plumas National Forest and Quincy, Calif.

    Diane Sylvain
  • Quincy Library Group members discuss which trees should be logged

    Jon Christensen
  • Crowded and dying trees seen by members of the Quincy Library Group

    Jon Christensen
  • Healthy, park-like forest seen by members of Quincy Library Group

    Jon Christensen

Note: this article is one of several feature stories in a special issue about collaboration in the West.

QUINCY, Calif. - In the context of the burned and dying forests of the West, the Quincy Library Group was supposed to be a good news story. Loggers and environmentalists sat down in the local public library and came up with an agreement to revive the surrounding forests and local timber economy.

But though both sides of the war in the woods worked out a peace plan, they found they could not get the Forest Service to go along. Politics, it seems, also occupied a seat at the library table.

Quincy, a small logging town near Lake Tahoe in northeastern California, is where California meets the real West. For more than a decade loggers and environmentalists have been at each others' throats, while appeals and lawsuits virtually shut down the local timber supply.

Three years ago the impasse cracked when Tom Nelson, the logging industry's top lobbyist in California, got together with Plumas County Supervisor Bill Coates.

Both had come to realize that a selective logging plan pushed 10 years ago by environmentalists would yield four times more trees than the Forest Service's proposals for clearcuts. It was a bitter pill, but the two men weren't bitter; they decided to get things moving.

Their first step was to call on Mike Jackson, a key environmentalist, to say yes to what he and others had long fought for: no more logging in old growth, no more roads in roadless areas, and selective cutting on the surrounding national forests to restore forest health and protect people from cataclysmic fires.

To hash out the details, they met in the library, so that anyone interested could listen and comment, while keeping their voices down. They drew up a plan and a map for managing the forests in a 2.5-million-acre area surrounding Quincy.

The Quincy Library Group soon became famous as a Western success. The group enjoyed extensive media coverage and was celebrated by the Clinton administration as an example of a collaborative approach to saving both jobs and the environment. The White House blessed the effort by choosing the nation's Christmas tree from the Plumas National Forest near Quincy; Agriculture Secretary Dan Glickman promised $4.7 million to implement the library group's agreement.

But when the bright lights faded, the Quincy Library Group found itself battling the Forest Service. Under the infamous salvage logging rider, the Plumas National Forest twice offered a timber sale within an area that the group said should be off limits to logging. Urging the agency on was California Republican Rep. Wally Herger, who said anything short of cutting trees in the Barkley sale was "a senseless waste of money and resources and a violation of the law."

The Barkley sale could have blown the whole agreement, says Mike Jackson, since it is in a roadless area adjacent to the Ishi Wilderness, and a prime salmon-spawning stream runs through it. But after what participants called "a bottom-line meeting," local timber companies agreed not to bid on it.

It was clear even before the Barkley sale burst on the scene that the Forest Service didn't have its heart in collaboration.

"The Quincy Library Group has demonstrated that even when all of us get on the same side and push, it doesn't mean the Forest Service will do anything," says Linda Blum of the Sierra Nevada Alliance, an umbrella organization encompassing grassroots coalitions like the Quincy Library Group. "We don't have a federal partner; we have a federal sparring partner."

The big question at a Denver meeting was what was happening with the $4.7 million promised by the Clinton administration. The group tried to track down how $1 million slated for a forest health pilot project was spent last year. "They're just taking the money and using it for existing projects," says Blum. "They're trapped," explains Ed Murphy. "They say they would like to but they can't do anything without amendments to the forest plan."

"This is bureaucratic behavior," says Blum. "They're trying to demonstrate that our idea won't work.

Mike Jackson is antsy. "Give me a piece of paper," he says. "I'll write a prescription. Can I borrow a piece of paper?" he asks logger Claude Sanders. "Somebody give me a map. I'll find material." Jackson sits at a desk and scribbles furiously. "We need to plan a timber sale for the $4.7 million that doesn't violate their laws," he says. "We can find one five minutes from my house," says Sanders. Jackson and Sanders agree to meet the next day.

Mike Jackson comes into the Morning Thunder Cafe with a pugnacious set to his white bearded jaw. Jackson, who grew up in Redding, the largest timber town in northern California, is a criminal defense lawyer and has worked as a local public defender.

In the past decade, he has also filed lawsuits for environmental groups, using California's public trust doctrine to restore flows and stop dam projects on Sierra Nevada rivers. He used the Endangered Species Act to stop timber sales.

He sketches the local history in broad strokes. "In the early part of this century, Quincy was home to the Red River Lumber Co., once the biggest timber company on the West Coast. They cut the hell out of the ponderosa forest for 40 to 50 years, then closed the mill, and moved on. The workers who were left behind burned down the mill. After World War II, smaller companies logged the easily accessible parts of the federal forests. Then, as urban refugees and the environmental ethic arrived in the 1970s and "80s, the fight started over what remained."

Loggers once tossed Jackson out of a bar where he'd been gloating about winning the battle for designation of a nearby wilderness. "It had reached the point that most of the logging community wouldn't set foot in here," he says, looking around the laid-back coffeehouse, "and environmentalists wouldn't set foot in Bob's Fine Foods.

"We had been enemies for 15 years. We didn't talk to each other. It was a community that was split. I'd say there was a 60 to 40 split in favor of logging, but the 40 percent was more knowledgeable about politics and very well connected to the urban view of the Sierra. So it resulted in a stalemate."

Jackson recalls the day Nelson and Coates said they wanted to talk on his terms - the land base. "We took all the roadless areas off the land base so we don't fight over those for 200 years. That's what it takes to regrow the forest that was here, the ponderosa pine, mixed conifer forest that John Muir saw, a forest composed 75 percent of big old trees with very little under them, except grass. You could ride through these forests with your hat on and never get it knocked off.

"Now we have two classes of land," Jackson says, "one that shouldn't be disturbed that we leave alone as long as possible, and the other that needs fixing."

As the sun burns the last wisps of fog out of the mountain ravines, Jackson meets Claude Sanders for a walk in the woods near Quincy.

Sanders works seasonally as a contractor for a small, independent logger. He has a second job in the winter as a "professor of volleyball" at the local community college. He leads us down a logging road near his home.

On the left side of the road, skinny gray skeleton trees lean against each other like so many pick-up sticks. On the right side of the road is a park-like forest.

"Everywhere we log, this is what we should leave behind," says Claude, pointing to the right, which he says was thinned 15 years ago. Turning to the left, he shakes his head. The land was clearcut and fire has never thinned it. "You couldn't have a better fuel ladder," he says.

"This is almost useless ecologically," adds Jackson. "I need a chainsaw in here to save the spotted owl. It couldn't fly through this thicket."

"But the bottom line is: Can the material pay for it?" wonders Sanders.

"That's the experiment," says Jackson. "Those two trees," he says, pointing to a couple crowding an even bigger ponderosa, "might fund chipping the trees that are down on the ground for plywood or biomass for electricity."

"If it doesn't, will the American public accept paying more for lumber?" Sanders asks. "A lot of people believe what I think is a myth - that the forest is healthy and can return money to the Treasury. I believe we can just about pay for maintenance. The forest is no longer a cash cow. At best, it's a break-even proposition.

"I believe the only long-lasting, sustainable solution is intensive management by people on the ground," says Sanders. "I would like to see a niche for an experiment in stewardship. I would love to take an acre, an acre and a half a day, and use everything economically. The Forest Service is locked into single-product timber sales. Valuable poles get made into saw logs. A piece of cedar six feet long is worth a lot more as a fence post than chipped. An acre a day thinning, plus two to three days making products, working half the year, I might go through 60 acres per year. I might need 600 acres. Give me a section."

"The proverbial wheat farm," says Jackson. "Our 2.5 million acres needs something like this, and that would provide work for 1,500 people like you in our area."

But even when loggers and environmentalists agree on a vision for sustaining the forest and community, why can't they get the Forest Service to go along? "They want us to fight because if we don't ...," Jackson begins and Sanders finishes the thought, "attention is called to them and they're defensive."

The Quincy Library Group had hoped that that the $4.7 million allocated by the Forest Service for forest health would be used to get loggers working on a pilot project by this spring. But early this month, they were still wrangling with the agency over the details of more than a dozen different off-the-shelf projects spread over three national forests. While the nearby Tahoe National Forest seems to be fitting its projects with the group's goals, the Plumas and Lassen national forests continue to resist, and there are eight more salvage timber sales in the works that could intrude on forest the Quincy Library Group agreed should not be touched.

For information about the Quincy Library Group, contact the group's facilitator, Mike DeLasaux, University of California Cooperative Extension, 208 Fairground Road, Quincy, CA 95971 (916/283-6125). The Forest Service liaison with the group is Dave Stone, Forest Health Pilot Project Coordinator, Plumas National Forest, P.O. Box 11500, Quincy, CA 95971 (916/283-2050).

Jon Christensen writes in Elko, Nevada. Jane Braxton Little in Greenville, Calif., contributed to this story.

The following sidebar article accompanies this feature story:

- A sampling of the West's collaborative efforts

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