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U.S. Unveils Plan to Manage Sierra Forests

Environment: More trees and wildlife would be protected. Proposal is criticized by both sides in ongoing land-use debate.


Releasing a long-delayed proposal for managing a large chunk of the Sierra Nevada, U.S. Forest Service officials Tuesday recommended protecting more of the region's oldest trees and the wildlife that lives among them.

The draft environmental impact statement, which deals with 11 national forests in the Sierra, represents another round in the rancorous debate over the balance of timber cutting, recreation and conservation on public lands.

Environmental groups immediately criticized the effort as being too timid. The California timber industry and recreational interests condemned it as too radical.

The document, which will be subject to public comment for the next 90 days, is an effort to manage the Sierra's federal forests as a single unit. Once adopted, it will serve as a blueprint for how much timber is cut, which roads are closed, and how wildlife habitat is conserved on about 12 million federal acres covering 40% of California's legendary mountain range.

"I think it's a major step forward in the management of the Sierra," regional forester Brad Powell said. "It will improve the ecological health and provide sustained benefits for those who use the national forests."

A Congress-authorized science study several years ago identified a variety of environmental threats to the rugged mountain range: population growth, a significant decline in the Sierra's land animals, widespread degradation of stream systems and substantial loss of the region's oldest and largest trees.

The Forest Service draft, known as the Sierra Nevada Framework Project, attempts to address the range's ecological decline by recommending two management schemes out of eight considered. After public comment, one will be selected.

The more cautious of the two proposals calls for additional research on wildlife habitat before plans are finalized.

Powell said that both alternatives would "significantly increase the amount of old forest in the Sierra and the amount of habitat for old-growth dependent species."

Whereas Powell said that about 318,000 acres of the forest land is now managed with an emphasis on maintaining and encouraging old growth, that would expand to 1.6 million acres or 2.3 million acres, depending on which alternative is chosen.

Under the alternative that environmentalists believe the Forest Service favors, controlled burns and timber cutting would be used to thin dense stands prone to wildfire. The other alternative would rely more heavily on burns.

Representatives of several environmental groups disagreed with Powell's upbeat characterizations.

"It's far too close to the status quo," California Wilderness Coalition Executive Director Paul Spitler said of the management proposals. "And the status quo is not working in the Sierra Nevada."

Warren Alford, a national field representative of the Sierra Club, similarly complained that one alternative would essentially maintain current lumbering levels for several years. The other would cut timbering to 141 million board feet a year, less than half the current amount.

While timber harvests in the Sierra's federal forests have fallen by more than half since their 1980s peak, environmental activists claim they remain too high.

Alford also contended that the Forest Service was not setting aside enough acreage to protect such species as the California spotted owl, which has continued to decline despite the last decade's drop in timbering.

Recreational interests threatened Tuesday to take the management plan to court, insisting that the Forest Service is driving them out of federal lands.

"It appears the Forest Service is telling the motorized recreational community it is not welcome in their national forests," said Don Amador of the Blue Ribbon Coalition.

Chris Nance of the California Forestry Assn. argued that the Forest Service was violating its mandate for multiple use. "The bottom line is we've got about three times more trees dying than are harvested," he said. "We have too much wood in the woods.

Recreational access to public lands has become an increasingly contentious issue as back-country lovers complain they are being overrun by off-road vehicles and off-roaders counter that the government is trying to shoo them off too many acres.

Powell said he anticipated that some areas would be closed to off-road use, but added that the service did not plan "to make broad sweeping closures."

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