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Yosemite Fire Plan Criticized Over Logging

Timber: Activists are upset that the cutting of large trees would be allowed. Officials say aggressive measures are needed to prevent blazes.


A fire protection plan for Yosemite National Park is drawing criticism from environmentalists who say it would allow the equivalent of commercial logging in century-old groves of trees long protected from the lumberjack's ax.

The proposal would allow loggers hired by the park to cut trees up to 31 1/2 inches in diameter--a size National Park officials concede is bigger than ever before.

Environmentalists said that is far too large, noting that in surrounding national forests, which historically have allowed commercial logging, the upper limit for eligible trees is 20 inches.

"This is a dangerous precedent," said Jay Watson of the Wilderness Society. "In the name of reducing fire, the Park Service is essentially introducing commercial logging in a park. It's curious to me why they would cross such a bright line."

National Park officials said aggressive efforts are needed to overcome nearly a century of intensive fire suppression that has allowed stands of trees in the park--like other spots throughout the Western United States--to grow too dense, choking meadows and oak woodlands.

Officials said the timber removal would be restricted to about 3,500 to 4,000 acres rimming buildings on the valley floor and other developed areas, which amounts to about half a percent of the park's 750,000 acres.

Moreover, not every big tree in those areas would be cut.

"It's not going to be a bunch of folks going around with blue spray-paint cans marking every tree in sight," said Tom Nichols, the National Park Service's regional fire management officer. "It's going to be very surgical."

The plan, which will be subjected to an exhaustive review in the coming months and is slated for study in a workshop in the park late this month, does not spell out what would become of any big trees felled in the process. The point isn't "to make money or do clear-cutting or anything else," Nichols said.

But he conceded that the fire plan calls for a tactical shift in the aftermath of a series of catastrophic wildfires that have ravaged the West in recent years.

For the first time, Yosemite would allow the use of heavy equipment that can grab mature trees, saw them off at the base and stack them.

In addition, most of the cutting would occur next to heavily visited areas such as Yosemite Valley, Wawona and the towns of Foresta and El Portal.

But the biggest change is the size of trees that can be removed. In the past, the park typically would not cut conifers bigger than a foot in diameter, relying instead on controlled burns to remove undergrowth from the forest floor.

Nichols said Yosemite's forest scientists concluded that trees smaller than 31 1/2 inches grew in an era of aggressive fire suppression, a well-intended effort that prevented smaller, containable fires from thinning stands and reducing shrubby growth that can fuel runaway, catastrophic fires.

Only forests that are next to buildings and campgrounds would be candidates for logging, Nichols said. Wild areas would be treated with controlled burns as rangers have for decades.

"This is not a euphemism for logging," said Scott Gediman, a Yosemite spokesman. "It's going in and selectively taking down some trees. It's certainly not going to look like clear-cuts."

Many environmentalists remain concerned.

Chad Hansen, executive director of the John Muir Project, said the plan features blanket language that provides no assurances that logging could not spread to "tens of thousands of acres" throughout the park, even in unsullied wild lands.

"This is clearly to open the door to logging old-growth trees in Yosemite National Park," Hansen said. "It's a commercial logging plan masquerading as ecosystem restoration and fire protection."

Hansen said that aggressive fire suppression in the park dates back to just after World War II, and that the big trees being considered for the ax in some cases are 150 years old.

"This is the same sort of subterfuge we've seen from the Bush administration in the national forests," said Hansen, who believes that Yosemite should stick to controlled burns to reduce flammable slash and debris.

Hansen said the removal of the big trees will harm wildlife while actually increasing the fire risk. Mature trees are more fire-resistant, he said, and opening up the forest canopy allows more sunlight that creates drier conditions on the ground and more rapid growth of flammable shrubs.

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