The Clinton administration on Thursday formally rejected as environmentally unsound the U.S. Forest Service's long-term strategy for managing the 10 national forests in the Sierra Nevada.
In a strongly worded report prepared by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, a committee of 11 experts concluded that the Forest Service management plan did not adequately protect numerous species of wildlife--and could cause some small mammals to become extinct--and that it prescribed levels of logging that were up to 40% too high for the overall good of the forest.
"Of major concern to the committee are the lack of any treatment of the uniqueness of the old-growth . . . forest ecosystems and their constituent species," the report said.
The administration's endorsement of the report means that the Forest Service will have to begin anew the painstaking process of developing a management plan for the Sierra that protects natural resources while permitting at least enough commercial logging to ease the growing risk of fire in many of the region's overstocked forests.
"We need to go back to the drawing board," said Jim Lyons, undersecretary for the environment for the Department of Agriculture, which oversees the Forest Service.
"The department is going to take the recommendations in this plan and put together a team to get back on track with a strategy to protect the Sierra," Lyons said.
Coming on the heels of last summer's Lake Tahoe environmental summit, the administration's intervention in forest management is the strongest signal to date of an intent to play an active role in the protection of natural resources in the Sierra.
At Lake Tahoe, Clinton pledged over $25 million to help the region improve water quality and rehabilitate forests damaged by draught, disease and excessive logging.
Thursday's report was praised by environmental groups. "The administration is demonstrating a commitment to good science with this report, and I hope it will provide a basis for charting a new course in the Sierra," said Louis Blumberg of the Wilderness Society.
Logging industry spokesmen, on the other hand, said the administration's decision amounts to a costly and unnecessary delay.
"Agriculture Secretary [Dan] Glickman's decision to redo the plan confirms that our national forest planning process finally has spun out of control and become a perpetual planning machine, through which it has become impossible to implement even the most basic forest management goals," said David Bischel, president of the California Forestry Assn.
Historically, the 8 million acres of national forest land in the Sierra have produced about half of the timber harvested on all 18 federal forests in California, according to a Forest Service spokesman.
But logging--along with mining, livestock grazing and real estate development--has taken a heavy toll on the region, as documented in a 1996 congressionally sponsored study of the Sierra.
Three years in the making, the Sierra Nevada Ecosystem Project found that nearly one-fifth of all Sierra land animals were in decline, two-thirds of its stream systems degraded and almost 90% of the national forests' oldest, largest trees had been cut down.
The report was enthusiastically received by both the logging industry and the environmental movement. But its recommendations for managing the Sierra forests were not reflected in the Forest Service management plan, according to the committee report released Thursday.
Since 1993, the Forest Service has been under pressure from the environmental movement and the timber industry to come up with a strategy acceptable to both sides. Prompting that pressure was concern over the decline of the California spotted owl, which triggered interim federal guidelines that dramatically reduced logging by virtually prohibiting the cutting of trees 30 inches in diameter or larger.
Under the 1993 guidelines, the amount of logging in Sierra forests fell to less than half the historic highs of about 1 billion board feet. It takes about 10,000 board feet to build a three-bedroom house.
Key ingredients of the plan that the administration has now repudiated were leaked last year and caused immediate controversy in part because they would have raised logging about 30% above 1993 levels. At the time, Forest Service officials said the plan also would lead to a 50% increase in jobs and up to 400% more revenue for some Sierra counties.
Completed just three months before the presidential election, the plan was roundly condemned by California environmental groups whose support Clinton was courting.
The administration then formed the 11-member panel to review its contents. The committee was headed by Charles Philpot, the retired chief of the Forest Service's Northwest Research Station.