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Criticism Delays U.S. Adoption of Sierra Forest Protection Plan

The proposal's stepped-up logging is not scientifically justified, scientists contend. The Forest Service pushes a decision back until January.

November 21, 2003|Bettina Boxall | Times Staff Writer

Wide-ranging criticism of a proposal to roll back wildlife and forest protections in the Sierra Nevada has caused the U.S. Forest Service to delay adoption of the changes, which would alter an environmental management plan for the state's most prominent mountain range.

A number of experts, including Forest Service scientists, have faulted the proposal on a variety of counts, saying that the agency has failed to provide a sound scientific justification to weaken the protections.

In response, the Forest Service has postponed a final decision on the revisions -- originally due this fall -- until January.

"We're listening to everything people are telling us, and one of them is we need to do a better job of documenting the rationale for the decision," said Matt Mathes, the Forest Service's spokesman in California. "All this is information Regional Forester Jack Blackwell actively asked for and wants. He doesn't really consider any of this good news or bad news. It's just information he needs to make a decision."

In detailed and sometimes sharp comments submitted to the Forest Service in recent months, several scientists warned that Blackwell's call for stepped-up logging could harm declining wildlife species, possibly pushing them onto the endangered species list. They disputed Forest Service claims that the proposed rollbacks were justified by "new information" on Sierra ecosystems and wildlife. And they raised questions about the plan's fire-reduction strategy.

The Forest Service proposal would rewrite a Clinton-era blueprint to manage 11 1/2 million acres of national forestland in the Sierra.

Adopted after years of study and controversy, the Clinton regulations were intended to stem the decline of wildlife and old-growth ecosystems in the 425-mile-long range by curtailing logging, restricting grazing and emphasizing the use of controlled burns to reduce the wildfire hazard.

Soon after taking office, Bush administration officials launched a review of the regulations, saying that they were too restrictive and too cautious in tackling the wildfire threat. In June the Forest Service released a draft environmental document proposing more aggressive logging to thin the Sierra's 11 national forests, as well as the elimination of some grazing restrictions.

The agency said that the grazing limits hurt ranchers, argued that the logging of more and larger trees would speed forest thinning necessary to reduce the wildfire threat, and cited new data on wildlife populations.

But after reviewing the proposal, federal scientists and academics challenged the assertion of new research findings.

"Largely, I don't think there is enough new information to say we know things ... we did not know three years ago," James Quinn, director of the Information Center for the Environment at UC Davis, said. "I don't think it changes the underlying view that a number of species driving these decisions are known to react badly to grazing or clearing the forest canopy."

Quinn was one of nearly a dozen experts who evaluated the plan at the Forest Service's request. Their initial September report was obtained by The Times.

They concluded that the Forest Service proposal was difficult to read, failed to take into account the possible impact of climate change on the Sierra, and was vague about how fuel reduction projects would be completed and maintained.

"One of the myths of fuels treatments is that all you have to do is thin the trees," commented U.S. Geological Survey research scientist Jan van Wagtendonk. "Taken to its ridiculous extreme, one can prevent forest fires by cutting down all the forests."

Thinning can help stop wildfires from leaping from treetop to treetop, he said. But it is equally if not more important to reduce brush and other flammable material on the forest floor, he said. "These aspects of fuel reduction are not given adequate treatment" in the Forest Service proposal, he said.

The researcher also questioned the Forest Service's contention that smoke and weather concerns would make it impossible to do all the prescribed burning called for in the Clinton Sierra management plan.

"This attitude ignores the fact that the National Park Service is able to find adequate windows for burning thousands of acres adjacent to many of these same forests."

The proposal's fire strategy did win approval from another review team member, UC Berkeley forest science professor emeritus William McKillop, who said he thought that it was appropriate ecologically and financially.

A September review by the Washington, D.C., staff of the Forest Service's Watershed, Fish, Wildlife, Air and Rare Plants office said the Sierra proposal would heighten risks for wildlife.

"One can only conclude that standards in [the proposal] are a prescription for continued owl population declines," the wildlife office report states.

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