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Striking a Balance in the Forest

Environmentalists, U.S. officials and loggers fashion a plan for a small piece of the Sierra. Still, some warn of pitfalls to local efforts.

January 06, 2003|Bettina Boxall | Times Staff Writer

SAN JUAN RIDGE, Calif. — Over the last 150 years this neck of the Sierra Nevada has been logged, gouged for gold and cultivated for marijuana. Now a quirky crew of locals and an independent-minded federal land manager are chasing something more elusive.

On 1,800 acres of pine and oak scattered between the Middle and South forks of the Yuba River, they are trying to avoid the strife that has so often marked the relationship among agencies that manage federal land, the people who live amid it and environmentalists.

In what one of the participants, Pulitzer Prize-winning poet Gary Snyder, calls "an interesting little experiment," they appear to be succeeding, having fashioned a plan to keep some logging trucks rolling off this Nevada County ridge every year to area sawmills while protecting its streams and most of its oldest trees.

Their small, little-noticed effort fits into a broader Western movement known, in the parlance of policymakers, as collaborative or community-based forest management.

The approach in essence takes away some of the government's power to dictate what happens to public land and gives it to those who live nearby. Supporters promote it as a route out of ceaseless environmental conflict. Opponents warn that inevitably it will morph into a tool -- albeit one wrapped in homespun cloth -- for the timber industry to get its way with resources that belong to all Americans.

Deane Swickard, the head of the U.S. Bureau of Land Management field office in Folsom, sees it as a revolution.

The San Juan Ridge is a 30-mile-long hybrid of the old and new Sierra, where long-settled mining and logging families live next to back-to-the-landers who arrived in the 1960s and '70s. Signs for a yoga commune and Zen Buddhist retreat mingle with clumps of sagging mailboxes staked along dirt roads that wind past unpretentious houses and the occasional marijuana patch.

The country is not grand. Some of it was badly mauled by huge hydraulic gold mining operations in the late 1800s. The forest is on the scraggly side and, except for a California spotted owl or two, doesn't harbor wildlife of much note. Ownership is a confusing hodgepodge of private and federal holdings overseen by the BLM and the U.S. Forest Service.

Swickard's relationship with the 2,000 or so people who live along the ridge began when he was thinking of allowing a radio transmission tower on Bald Mountain, a favorite of locals, and considering selling some of the agency's parcels. Residents protested. Swickard found another place to put the transmitter, and the seeds of cooperation were planted.

They started to sprout when locals approached him later with ideas on managing the ridge's 10 BLM parcels. They had watched as clear-cuts erupted like sores on public land in the 1970s and '80s. They did not want to see the same thing happen in their backyard.

Swickard, described by local craftsman Robert Erickson as "kind of mischievous and very open," was ready for something different. After years of public meetings and comment periods, he thought the government's conventional approach to land-use planning was bankrupt.

"It just doesn't work. It's the royal 'We,' " Swickard said. "We come and do our planning and the peasants come in for three minutes, and the resulting plans are roundly rejected by the public.... Where does the meaningful input come in? In my experience, it didn't."

Such bluntness is surprising in a career federal employee. But Swickard has walked his own path for decades. A Marine helicopter gunship pilot in Vietnam, he later transferred to Camp Pendleton to work as a wildlife biologist, studying ways in which the California least tern could co-exist with war games.

After joining the BLM, he headed the agency's environmental planning in California for several years until, he says, he was "booted out" of the post for refusing to tinker with an environmental impact study that was not to his superiors' liking.

He wound up in the agency's Folsom office, where he has happily remained for two decades, overseeing the management of 230,000 acres of lower-elevation parcels strung like pieces of a broken necklace up and down the Mother Lode country east of Sacramento.

When ridge residents said they wanted a hand in managing the 1,800 acres of BLM land interlacing their property, Swickard replied that if they developed a forest plan that met federal environmental standards, his office would guide it through the approval process.

They founded the nonprofit Yuba Watershed Institute in 1991, and spent the next four years pondering what to do with the BLM parcels, which they called the 'Inimim Forest, after the Maidu Indian word for pine tree. "We just chewed and talked. The democracy of it was very slow," remembered Erickson, who carves chairs out of trees he fells himself.

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