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Forest Service Plan Would Triple Logging Limits in Sierra

Proposal would allow timber companies to harvest larger trees while removing brush that feeds wildfires.

June 06, 2003|Julie Cart | Times Staff Writer

Stating that changes are needed to reduce fire danger, the U.S. Forest Service, in the final draft of a management plan for the Sierra Nevada, would allow three times as much logging as was permitted by the agency under the Clinton administration.

The plan, released Thursday, is the latest in a series of changes to the Clinton-era Sierra Nevada Framework, which made large areas of the Sierra off limits to logging to protect wildlife habitat. The latest plan is to take effect after a three-month public comment period.

Forest Service officials cast the proposal as a wildfire management plan that saves taxpayers money, creates jobs and generates revenue in depressed rural areas.

The officials say the plan calls for allowing timber companies to harvest large, commercially viable trees and use the proceeds in part to pay for so-called fuels management, the removal of small trees and brush that have little market value but are highly flammable.

"This is a way to significantly offset the costs of fuels management and still preserve resources," said Steve Eubanks, supervisor of the Tahoe National Forest, one of 11 federal forests in the Sierra Nevada system. "We think this is a good way to pay for costly work and not have that come out of the taxpayer's pocket."

Conservation groups attacked the plan as a blueprint for wholesale logging of national forests that targets many of the largest, most fire-resistant trees that provide shelter for wildlife.

"It just doesn't make sense," said Barbara Boyle of the Sierra Club. "It's like telling someone who is on the operating table, 'I'm sorry, but you'll have to give up a kidney in order to pay for your heart bypass.' The only clear winner here is the timber companies."

The plan would allow loggers to reduce tree cover to reduce fire risk in areas where the California spotted owl nests and forages. Under the latest plan, if logging occurs in a designated owl habitat area, a compatible area nearby must be set aside for the owls to move to, said Matt Mathes, spokesman for the Forest Service in California.

Biologists are concerned that though the plan specifies a goal of 50% canopy cover in owl habitat, it would let that drop to 40% in some circumstances.

Jared Verner, a retired Forest Service owl expert, said spotted owls require at least 50% cover where they forage and much more in nesting areas. "I'm concerned about the canopy cover issue," he said. "There is a direct relationship between the success of owl nesting and canopy."

Eubanks of the Forest Service said that even though the agency's own analysis projects that the plan will fragment and degrade owl habitat over the next 20 years, in the long run forest regrowth will sustain the birds.

The management blueprint calls for a harvest of up to 448 million board-feet annually, about three times the current permissible logging level, Eubanks said, on the 11.5 million acres of national forest in the Sierra.

The plan would allow the removal of trees up to 29 inches in diameter. Conservationists argue that in cutting trees that large, the Forest Service will increase fire risk by encouraging the removal of some of the hardiest trees in the forest.

But David Bischel, president of the California Forestry Assn., called the plan a "win-win" strategy. "This protects the forest from catastrophic wildfire and improves employment in rural forest-dependent communities," he said.

The Forest Service projects nearly 1,900 jobs will be created by the plan and $57 million in earnings will be generated over 10 years.

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