California's top federal forester is being transferred to a new job, dismaying conservation groups who fear the move portends the dismantling of a plan to protect old-growth forests and fragile wildlife in the Sierra Nevada.
Brad Powell, who oversees the state's 20 million acres of national forests, has won broad support among environmentalists and scientists for overseeing completion of the Sierra Nevada master plan, which de-emphasizes logging and stresses the importance of wildlife conservation.
Powell signed the plan in mid-January, in the closing days of the Clinton administration.
It is being appealed by a multitude of critics, including the state's timber industry, sportsmen's groups and several counties. "To some degree the framework obviously did not go well. . . . It does not allow good management of the forest," said Thomas Barile, chairman of the Sierra Nevada Access, Multiple Use and Stewardship Coalition, which is made up of 89 organizations, including chambers of commerce, bicyclists and river rafters.
Barile's group, which has joined the appeal of the framework, was previously represented by Ann Veneman, then a private attorney and now U.S. Secretary of Agriculture. In that post, she oversees the Forest Service. Veneman announced in February that she would recuse herself from all decisions related to the Sierra Nevada plan.
The Forest Service announced Powell's transfer in a news release Friday, stating simply that he will become chief forester for the service's northern region, covering Montana, North Dakota, and parts of Idaho and South Dakota.
The Forest Service has not announced Powell's replacement.
Several environmental leaders described Powell as a enlightened forester, in contrast to old-time forest administrators who valued the needs of the timber industry more than conservation concerns.
"It's just very complicated in California, and it takes a talented person. There have been regional foresters who weren't up for it--and Brad was," said Craig Thomas, conservation director of the Sierra Nevada Forest Protection Campaign, which represents 73 conservation groups throughout the state.
"I guess they just want someone who does what he's told," Thomas said.
At the Wilderness Society, Jay Watson, the California regional director, questioned why Powell would be transferred after only two years in his job.
"It's a setback," said Watson, expressing concern that the Bush administration will alter the Sierra Nevada plan.
"If they're going to make some changes to it, removing the regional forester who oversaw its preparation could make that easier," Watson said.
On the other side of the debate, Chris Nance, the vice president for public affairs of the California Forestry Assn., which represents timber companies, mill owners and other timber interests, said, "Personally, we'd like to say we wish Brad well heading for Montana."
But Nance, whose organization has appealed the management plan, reiterated the group's opposition to what Powell has approved.
Powell said simply that Forest Service Director Dale Bosworth had asked him to move to the northern regional post, which Bosworth held before being promoted to his current job in the Bush administration.
"The chief asked me if I would take this position, and I agreed to it," Powell said. He said he had not had discussions with Washington officials about the Sierra Nevada plan, noting that it has been appealed, and that Bosworth is due to issue a decision in the third week of September.
Powell called that plan a landmark decision, saying it paves the way for better management of the Sierra. "You're looking at 11 million acres of land," he said. "It's truly some of the most majestic lands we have in the state."
A major challenge was protecting the forests from fire while at the same time providing adequate habitat for old-growth species, he said. "I think we struck a reasonable balance in that, but certainly there are differing opinions of that," said Powell, 50, who started his Forest Service career in 1969 as a firefighter in Arizona's Tonto National Forest.
Among opponents of the Sierra plan, the forestry association contends that it does not allow for sufficient logging and therefore heightens the risk of forest fires.
He called the master plan a "one size fits all" program, adding, "We feel forest lands need to be based on site-by-site conditions."