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Bush Plan Seeks More Sierra Logging

The administration's proposal would discard environmental rules established in 2000.

February 04, 2003|Bettina Boxall | Times Staff Writer

The Bush administration is drafting a proposal that would greatly increase logging in national forests in the Sierra Nevada and effectively jettison an elaborate set of environmental protections adopted in 2000 after years of study and analysis.

Complaining that the rules, written by the Clinton administration, are too restrictive and complicated, the U.S. Forest Service is considering replacing them with a much looser set of guidelines that could permit a level of timber cutting not seen in the Sierra for more than a decade.

As currently outlined, the revisions would retain the largest and oldest trees in federal forests, but would permit the harvesting of trees as large as 30 inches in diameter across most of the range. They would also allow loggers to create thousands of acres of openings in forests, as large as 2 acres apiece, throughout the Sierra.

The recommendations have not been publicly released, and regional forest service officials declined to discuss them in detail, saying they remain under review and may change over the next six weeks. "It's a draft of a draft," said Matt Mathes, spokesman for the Forest Service in California.

The prospective revisions would dramatically alter a detailed management plan for the Sierra's 11 national forests that emphasizes ecosystem and wildlife protection and severely limits logging.

The Bush administration affirmed the Clinton-era plan when it was appealed by timber and recreation interests, but then embarked on a year-long review of the document that the Forest Service says has led its staff to conclude that the regulations are in many ways unworkable.

"There has been some implementation of the decision, but it has not been as much as we hoped," Mathes said. District rangers, he said, "are telling us there are so many layers of requirements they have to walk through to get a project done, they almost find themselves in a box in which they can't do much of anything."

Based on more than a decade of study that cost about $20 million, the Sierra plan essentially steered the Forest Service down a new path in the 450-mile-long range. Timber cutting took a back seat to the protection of old-growth trees, wildlife and river and stream systems, all of which scientists said were in decline.

The plan, which is now in effect, relies heavily on deliberately set, controlled fires to thin out dense vegetation and reduce the risk of wildfire. It establishes several zones of forestland, allowing the most thinning and timber cutting near communities and the least in 4 million acres of old forest reserves spread across the range.

In the old-forest area, extensive restrictions were placed, not only on the size of trees that could be cut, but also on the amount of canopy cover that could be removed.

The protections were hailed by conservationists as long-overdue medicine for a range that had been logged, mined and tramped across for more than a century. But the timber industry and off-road motorized recreation groups complained bitterly, as did federal foresters who had spent much of their careers overseeing logging that supplied boards for the housing industry.

Timber harvests in federal forests in California plunged in the 1990s as the result of rules protecting areas favored by spotted owls. The Sierra rules reduced the cutting even further.

The latest recommendations drawn up by a regional forest service team would continue to spare owl nesting sites, but eliminate other restrictions designed to protect broader owl habitat.

"This is a dramatic rollback of the most progressive, scientifically sound decision the Forest Service has ever made," said Craig Thomas of the Sierra Nevada Forest Protection Campaign. "It's a massive ramping up of the logging program at the expense of at-risk species."

Repeating an argument the Bush administration is making in the Sequoia National Monument in California and federal forests elsewhere in the West, Mathes said more timber cutting is needed to reduce the threat of wildfire that could devastate forests and wildlife habitat.

It is not possible, he said, for the Forest Service to do the amount of controlled burning called for in the Sierra plan. "We don't have the days in the year when the weather permits us to do the level of prescribed burning. It's becoming clear we probably are going to have more reliance on cutting, primarily small-diameter trees, below 24 inches."

Permitting logging companies to take trees as large as 30 inches would make the job more profitable, and thus more attractive to them, Mathes said.

James Lyons, a former undersecretary of the U.S. Department of Agriculture who oversaw the Forest Service during the Clinton administration, challenged the claim that the Sierra rules are too complicated to work.

"I don't know that I buy that," said Lyons, who is a natural resource management professor at Yale. "I think the guidelines that were developed weren't even implemented. They were put on hold and a presumption was made that they were too difficult."

Before dismantling a set of regulations that took years and millions of dollars to develop, Lyons said, the Forest Service should present its recommendations to the scientific assessment team that worked on the Sierra plan.

"I think the only common denominator that should sustain an administration -- Republican or Democrat," Lyons said, "is whether there is sufficient support among the scientific community that knows this region, understands these issues and has studied them, to lend credibility to what the administration is proposing."

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