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Shady Moves on Forest Plan

July 22, 2002

In a clumsy stroke of doublespeak, the Bush administration has at once embraced a landmark plan to protect the Sierra Nevada and launched a study that could undermine that very plan. It is easy to suspect that the results of the new study are ordained already.

Nearly 10 years of work preceded the Clinton administration's adoption of the Sierra Nevada Framework, a management plan for 11.5 million acres of national forest designed to protect old-growth timber and endangered wildlife and their habitats, to safeguard watersheds and to provide fire control. The work was begun in the early 1990s to protect the California spotted owl but grew into an effort to safeguard common elements of the whole range, spanning 500 miles from the Tehachapi peaks on the south to the Modoc plateau on the north--10 national forests, four national parks and the Lake Tahoe basin.

Perhaps never has an entire range been studied in such detail. The precursor of the framework was the Sierra Nevada Ecosystem Project, ordered by Congress in 1993, which sent about 100 scientists to catalog problems such as the loss of habitat and the speed of development in the foothills. The widely hailed report was published at UC Davis in 1996.

When the Bush administration took office, the Agriculture Department announced it would not overturn the framework, a backdoor sort of approval that cheered environmentalists and angered commercial timber interests because the framework cut back on some kinds of logging.

A few days later, the U.S. Forest Service announced that the plan would be subjected to a "broad review." And recently, Regional Forester Jack Blackwell said up to six scientists would be hired to look at the plan. "We think there is strong value in getting good scientists together and answering policy questions for us," he said.

What was wrong with the 100 scientists who spent three years studying the Sierra, let alone the professionals of the Forest Service who live and work in the range? The most logical answer, unfortunately, is that the review will be political cover for weakening the plan, to allow more logging of bigger trees in the guise of fire protection.

The framework has an entirely adequate fire control plan that includes concessions to logging interests. It focuses on clearing fire fuels around built-up areas, including trees of up to 30 inches in diameter within a quarter-mile of homes and other development. Furthermore, recent studies show that more logging does not necessarily mean fewer fires.

The Bush administration has overturned a number of sound environmental initiatives from the Clinton era on the excuse that they were not based on "good science." When it comes to the science of the Sierra framework, that's a tall mountain to climb.

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