The timber wars flared anew Friday when the U.S. Forest Service announced plans to roughly double logging across more than 2 million acres of national forest land in Northern California.
The decision is the final step in carrying out a congressionally approved logging plan arrived at several years ago by a coalition of citizens in the Plumas County town of Quincy.
Known as the Quincy Plan, it was intended as a compromise in the ongoing fight over logging in federal forests in the Sierra Nevada, where concerns over wildlife habitat and other environmental issues have greatly reduced timber cutting this decade.
Pressured on the one hand to further reduce logging levels and on the other to raise them to produce more timber and thin the most fire prone areas of the forest, the service opted for more cutting.
The amount of timber felled annually in the Plumas, Lassen and northern third of the Tahoe forest will rise from about 126 million board feet to 200 million to 286 million board feet.
Although the new logging levels will still be less than they were in the 1980s, environmentalists condemned Friday's action.
"I'm very unhappy with this decision," said Scott Hoffman Black, director of the Sierra Nevada Forest Protection Campaign. "It seems to me they're bowing to political pressure to allow a doubling of logging when there's no science to justify it."
A Forest Service spokeswoman defended the decision, saying that of the 2.4 million acres of forest land covered in the plan, a maximum of 350,000 acres will be cut over a five-year period.
Moreover, she said, no logging will be allowed in spotted owl habitat, no trees larger 30 inches in diameter will be harvested, and areas of high-quality, old-growth trees will be protected.
"The Forest Service is implementing congressional mandates and protecting the California spotted owl and wildlife," said Forest Service spokeswoman Lee Anne Taylor.
Quincy attorney Michael Jackson, who helped draw the blueprint for the compromise, praised the service and said the increased timbering was necessary.
"We've got to do something about the over-density of the forest. We've suppressed fire for 100 years. . . . We're sort of sitting in the middle of kindling under big trees. If we don't do something, we're going to have substantial fires over time and steadily lose old-growth species." The environmental community had lobbied heavily for less timbering, taking out ads in national newspapers, and it is expected to appeal the plan.
"We are bitterly disappointed," said Louis Blumberg, policy analyst with the Wilderness Society.
Predicting that the Quincy Plan would require construction of 100 miles of new logging roads, he said that would "undoubtedly result in significant environmental damage to rivers and streams, wildlife and its habitat." Intense debates over timbering in the country's national forests is underway from Washington to California. Growing pressures to manage the federal lands in a more environmentally sensitive manner are clashing with timber industry demands as well as concerns about the buildup of dense growth that could fuel destructive wildfires.
In the Pacific Northwest, environmental lawsuits have slashed timber harvests over the last decade, and the wrangling continues there.