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Review Set for Sierra Use Plan

Environment: Forestry official's letter keeps alive the debate over millions of acres of federal forest land.

January 01, 2002|BETTINA BOXALL | TIMES STAFF WRITER

A federal forestry official signaled Monday that he is open to significant reshaping of a plan that slashes timber harvests and strengthens wildlife protections on national forest land in the Sierra Nevada.

In a letter released by his office, Pacific Southwest Regional Forester Jack Blackwell said that over the next year, he will undertake a broad review of the Sierra blueprint to gauge its impact on grazing, recreation, local communities and wildfire threats.

His statement promises to keep alive a long and contentious debate over management of 11 1/2 million acres of federal forest up and down the Sierra Nevada.

Just last week, the Bush administration upheld the much-appealed plan, adopted in the final days of the Clinton presidency after years of study and revision.

But in affirming the guidelines, Agriculture Undersecretary Mark Rey also gave the regional forester room to modify them.

In his letter to Forest Service Chief Dale Bosworth and in accompanying documents, Blackwell said he is assembling a team to review the plan, "evaluate any needed changes . . . and, if necessary, propose them."

Environmentalists immediately charged that Blackwell is intent on undermining the new protections, which timber and recreational interests have criticized as far too restrictive.

"This is clearly catering to the timber industry," said Chad Hanson, executive direct of the John Muir Project.

Blackwell singled out several areas for reexamination. One is greater reduction of forest growth that fuels fires. Another is the impact of the new guidelines on ski areas, cabins and other recreation uses.

He also indicated he will move ahead with a pilot project in part of the range that is less restrictive than the overall management plan; attempt to maintain livestock grazing near existing levels; and reconsider some restrictions dealing with wildlife sites and old-growth trees.

Critics of the Sierra guidelines said they were encouraged by Blackwell's position, if unsure where it would lead.

"We have a wait-and-see attitude," said Don Amador of the BlueRibbon Coalition, a recreation group. "But certainly this letter today is a step in the right direction."

Officials of the Regional Council of Rural Counties said they were heartened by Blackwell's letter.

Environmental groups that last week praised the Bush administration for letting the Sierra guidelines stand were uniformly dismayed by Blackwell's letter.

"It's very alarming," said Craig Thomas of the Sierra Nevada Forest Protection Campaign. "It looks like they want to basically take apart all this work that has been going on for nine years."

Wilderness Society regional director Jay Watson said the scope of Blackwell's review "begs the question of whether Jack Blackwell was sent here to destroy this plan. This seems like a bomb has been dropped on the framework."

Forest Service spokesman Matt Mathes said Blackwell is trying to address issues raised in appeals.

"We are sensitive to concerns expressed by members of the public," Mathes said. "These are public lands."

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