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California and the West | CALIFORNIA ELECTIONS

Boxer's Timber Country Turnabout

Politics: Support wanes in Sierra after she drops sponsorship of a bill to approve a landmark pact between foes and advocates of logging.


QUINCY, Calif. — U.S. Sen. Barbara Boxer is not welcome in this northern Sierra Nevada valley ringed with evergreen forest.

That's a switch from last year, when the Democrat--now in a tough reelection battle against Republican state Treasurer Matt Fong--came to town to evaluate an unprecedented agreement among local environmental, political and timber interests on how logging companies harvest U.S. Forest Service land.

Then, Boxer was the 5,000-resident community's darling, tromping around in the woods, rating two daily stories in the Feather River Bulletin.

Known as the "green senator" for her stewardship of environmental causes, Boxer praised the parties' willingness to sit down together in the local library and pledged her advocacy to get the Forest Service on board.

"I think it's a model," Boxer told a Bulletin reporter.

But that was before she changed her mind.

A year ago, under pressure from national environmental organizations that consider the Quincy Library Group plan a timber-industry bonanza, Boxer pulled out of legislation she had co-authored with Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) to make the pact law.

Still, members of the Quincy group claim that in a private meeting in her San Francisco office in January, Boxer promised she would not fight them in Washington, where the bill had passed the House on a 429-1 vote.

Next thing they knew, though, she had done just that, stalling the bill for almost a year until other legislators slipped it into the omnibus budget bill signed by the president last week.

"It was practical politics over what she knew," said Bill Coates, a former county supervisor who initiated the Quincy Library Group discussions six years ago.

Boxer said that during the January meeting she told the Quincy backers she had made a mistake, but she denied promising not to oppose the bill.

"It started off as a good idea, but it went bad," she said.

The Quincy Library Group began as a conversation among enemies in 1992, when tire store owner Coates brought together a local public defender--who had filed many lawsuits to halt logging--and a timber company representative. They met at the library so no one could shout.

Right off, they found they had a common foe: the bureaucratic U.S. Forest Service. Soon common interests emerged: improving local economies--hurt by a logging slowdown--and limiting the risk of fire from overgrown forests.

By 1994, attendance at monthly meetings had grown from three to 50. They argued, they agreed, then they argued some more.

Finally, a compromise was reached that gained national acclaim, causing the Clinton administration to order the White House Christmas tree from the Plumas National Forest near here.

Introduced as the Feinstein-Boxer bill in July 1997, the agreement would allow lumber companies to thin up to 70,000 acres a year in not only the Plumas but also the Lassen and Tahoe national forests. In most areas, the largest trees would be spared and the companies would be subsidized to remove some smaller trees that are particularly fire prone.

National environmental organizations had gripes with the plan early on, some of which were resolved along the way. Carl Pope, executive director of the Sierra Club, said the biggest lingering problem is the plan's scope.

"What we have here is a group of people . . . who know a lot about certain places in these national forests," Pope said. "But they wrote a plan for an entirety of these national forests, most of which they do not know at all."

In the fall of 1997, when it appeared the legislation was destined for passage, lobbying against it intensified. The national groups even took out a full-page advertisement in the New York Times that featured a cartoon of Boxer and Feinstein dragging a Trojan horse up the Capitol steps.

Boxer pulled out and, according to federal protocol, without her acquiescence, coauthor Feinstein could not push forward.

Fong has worked diligently to make the environmental spat a campaign issue. During both Boxer-Fong debates, he accused his opponent of playing politics with the environment and of favoring national environmental interests over local solutions.

In the first debate, Boxer said the Quincy plan "would have doubled the cut of magnificent trees in three national forests." In the second debate, she said triple.

The Sierra Club's Pope says double is closer to correct--double the recent years' cuts rather than "devastating" historic cuts.

The Quincy plan's backers say that during the last couple of years, logging was suppressed by factors including federal budget cuts, anti-timber lawsuits and an agreement by local lumber companies to voluntarily comply with the plan.

Even Feinstein, who has endorsed Boxer, privately chided her in correspondence last winter, saying the Forest Service found the cuts would be consistent with those of the past five years.

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