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Sierra Plan May Get Cut Down

Environment: The Forest Service plans to hire scientists to examine Clinton-era protections against timbering and grazing in the range.


SIERRA NATIONAL FOREST — Sending its strongest signals yet that it is moving to weaken new protections for wildlife and old-growth forests in the Sierra Nevada range, the Bush administration is hiring an outside team of scientists to reevaluate existing environmental policies.

In comments during a daylong field trip Wednesday with ranchers, outfitters and environmentalists, Pacific Southwest Regional Forester Jack Blackwell underscored the administration's unease with restrictions, adopted as part of a Sierra Nevada plan in the final days of the Clinton administration.

Blackwell, a U.S. Forest Service veteran appointed seven months ago, questioned whether timber-cutting limits were too severe and if the plan's emphasis on controlled burns to reduce the threat of wildfire was workable.

He said his office would contract with a high-level group of scientists to review the new guidelines. "We think there is strong value in getting good scientists together and answering policy questions for us," he said.

The product of extensive scientific study and revision, the Sierra Nevada plan was intended to replace patch-work management of 11.5 million acres of national forest land and stem environmental decline across the length of the range. The plan placed greater restrictions on logging, curtailed grazing and recreation near streams, and protected the nesting sites and dens of rare animals.

Blackwell said he wanted neither to gut the Sierra Nevada plan--the general outlines of which have been upheld on appeal by his bosses--nor let it stand as is. "I'm not one that wants to blow it up and start from scratch," he said. "Let's not throw it out the door, but improve it."

Mike Ash, who is heading the Forest Service team reviewing the Sierra protections, said four to six scientists would be contracted to answer a list of policy questions and then would present their recommendations at a public meeting, probably in the early fall.

Current Sierra protections were applauded by environmentalists and denounced by timber and off-road recreation interests and by ranchers who fear losing grazing access to high meadows.

A provision that has drawn particular attention directs the Forest Service to primarily use deliberately set, controlled burns rather than timber cutting to remove dense growth and reduce fire hazards.

Citing that policy, Blackwell expressed doubts that the Forest Service could secure all the air-quality permits necessary to conduct a large number of controlled burns. Even if it did obtain them, he wondered whether the public would tolerate smoke from the prescribed fires. He also questioned whether the Sierra protections would allow the Forest Service to carry out a national fire plan that calls for the government to reduce the wildfire threat in federal forests.

And, he said, foresters were finding it difficult to observe tree-cutting limits designed to protect wildlife habitat.

"It's incredibly complex. There are unresolved questions about how it will work and whether we can understand it and the public will understand it," he said.

Fire managers are telling him, Blackwell added, that they would like to thin stands to a somewhat greater extent than allowed in parts of the forests under the wildlife protections.

Blackwell's plans to hire an outside group of scientists was immediately criticized by environmentalists.

"Contracting with an outside team will give them all the ammunition they need to undermine the entire plan--should they choose to--and it really tips their hand," said Jay Watson, the Wilderness Society's regional director who was on the field trip. "Nothing is black-and-white in land management and resource science. You could easily find five scientists who say [the Sierra plan] is too protective and restrictive."

Wednesday's field trip into the Sierra National Forest northeast of Fresno was one of a series Blackwell is conducting to examine various aspects of the Sierra protections. While top Forest Service officials rejected appeals of the blueprint earlier this year, they asked Blackwell to review it and left the door open for changes.

About 50 people from the Forest Service and various interest groups traveled to two high Sierra meadows to talk about grazing restrictions that were adopted to protect the willow flycatcher and Yosemite toad. There were ranchers and pack outfitters clad in boots and cowboy shirts and environmental advocates wearing hiking boots and sandals.

The ranchers use high meadows for summer cattle grazing and the outfitters use them for grazing horses on pack trips. The willow flycatcher, a small bird on the state endangered-species list, is seen in dense clumps of willows that grow in wet meadows.

The Yosemite toad, which is found only in the Sierra and is in decline, breeds in the meadows.

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