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Clinton's Plan for Sierra Upheld

Resources: The Forest Service chief OKs timber protection, but calls for more review of blueprint.

November 17, 2001|BETTINA BOXALL | TIMES STAFF WRITER

The chief of the U.S. Forest Service has upheld a Clinton administration plan to protect the Sierra Nevada's old-growth trees and reduce timber cutting in the range.

But as Dale Bosworth affirmed the Sierra blueprint, he also called for further review of some parts of the document, which critics said could lead to a weakening of it.

In the decision, announced Friday, Bosworth was ruling on more than 200 appeals filed against management guidelines issued in the final days of the Clinton administration. The policy set a new course for the Sierra Nevada's 11 national forests, emphasizing wildlife and old-growth protections at the expense of timber-cutting.

It limits activities near streams, protects nesting sites and dens of rare birds and animals, significantly reduces timber harvests and preserves the largest trees.

The shift angered timber and recreational interests and some Sierra residents who argued that the logging reductions will promote huge, destructive wildfires.

Bosworth acknowledged their concerns by directing the Pacific regional forester to reexamine three areas of the Sierra strategy: how it fits with national firefighting efforts, how it deals with fire danger levels in California and to what extent it conflicts with a congressionally approved pilot project for managing part of the range.

"The chief did not want to provide specific direction to the region," said Steve Segovia, forest service assistant director for appeals and litigation. But, he added, Bosworth wants the region to "look and see if there are by chance opportunities for more aggressive fuel treatments. He isn't saying there are."

Several organizations that led the appeal effort expressed disappointment in Bosworth's ruling, which is not necessarily the final say in the matter.

Agriculture Secretary Ann Veneman, who oversees the Forest Service, recused herself from the appeal process because she had represented one of the leading opponents of the plan. In her place, Agriculture Undersecretary Mark Rey has 15 days to review Bosworth's ruling and can either let it stand or reverse it.

Regardless of what Rey does, the conservation plan will likely wind up in court, as groups on both sides of the issue have vowed to press on.

"I will ask the Secretary of Agriculture to review and overturn Bosworth's decision. If that is unfruitful, then our only recourse will be to challenge it in court," said Don Amador, western representative for the Blue Ribbon Coalition, a recreation group that fears the new policies will restrict access to some parts of the Sierra forests.

An executive of the Regional Council of Rural Counties said his group was unhappy the plan was upheld but heartened that the forest chief ordered a second look at some issues.

"This past summer we saw several of our county seats nearly inundated with fire," said John Hofmann, natural resources director for the council, which represents all the forested counties in California. "We could watch it from the courthouse. We're fearful this is going to continue unless we start addressing it."

Supporters say the plan adequately deals with the fire threat through the use of controlled burns and forest thinning. They also say it will not be easily overturned.

"I truly believe there is no love lost for this plan within the Department of Agriculture," said Jay Watson, regional director of the Wilderness Society. "They're not happy about it but they're stuck because it is the best possible plan based on the best possible science."

Released in January, the policy was the result of a $12-million, years-long effort to address concerns about ecological decline in the mountain range. If the Forest Service retreats from the plan's protections, it could run afoul of endangered species regulations that would be even more restrictive, environmentalists contend.

Conservationists, pleased that the plan was upheld, said Bosworth's directive to review some parts sends mixed signals.

"Every single part of the decision was affirmed, I thought, in a very positive way. But then you see this political overlay," said Craig Thomas of the Sierra Nevada Forest Protection Campaign.

If the administration attempts to reverse it, he added, "We'll be in court in a heartbeat."

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