A Bush administration official has decided to review a new plan that increases logging levels in the Sierra Nevada, adding another twist to a decade-long fight over the future of national forest land in California's most famous mountain range.
The review by Agriculture Undersecretary Mark E. Rey opens the possibility of further revisions to a plan that has been criticized by the timber industry for not allowing enough logging and by environmentalists for allowing too much.
"The undersecretary didn't give me any reasons for doing a review other than to say he was doing it," said Dan Jiron, national press officer for the U.S. Forest Service.
Jiron said Rey has reviewed other forest plans in the past, typically making only minor changes.
"Would he rewrite the decision entirely? The answer is no," Jiron said.
But Rey could send the plan back to California for extensive modifications.
The plan Rey has chosen to review is itself a revision of a wide-ranging set of protections adopted for the Sierra's 11.5 million acres of national forest land during the Clinton administration.
Those guidelines deemphasized commercial timber harvesting, set aside 4 million acres of old-growth reserves where only small trees could be cut, and relied heavily on controlled burning to reduce the risk of wildfire.
After Bush took office, his administration moved to weaken the Clinton rules, saying they were too restrictive and didn't do enough to thin dense growth that can fuel forest fires.
Early this year, Regional Forester Jack Blackwell amended the Clinton plan to allow for more logging of larger trees, effectively eliminating the old-growth reserves and loosening habitat protections for rare species such as the California spotted owl and the Pacific fisher.
Blackwell's decision, appealed by both timber interests and environmentalists, was upheld in November by Forest Service Chief Dale Bosworth. Rey, who oversees the Forest Service, informed officials Tuesday that he was reviewing Bosworth's action.
In the background is a lawsuit filed by the timber industry -- and the promise of more lawsuits to come from environmentalists and the California attorney general's office.
The California Forestry Assn., a timber industry group, sued the Forest Service earlier this month in the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia, contending that the latest Sierra plan still contained too many logging restrictions and thus undermined one of the primary purposes for which national forests were created -- to provide timber.
Environmentalists and the attorney general's office, on the other hand, have criticized the Forest Service for weakening wildlife and old-growth protections.
"There will be a challenge coming from a variety of parties, including the attorney general and environmental groups," said Craig Thomas, executive director of the Sierra Nevada Forest Protection Campaign.
Thomas said that in light of the timber lawsuit, Rey's review could be "an attempt by the Bush administration to give the industry what they want, which is a settlement that remands [the plan] back for increased logging in the Sierra Nevada."
The administration has elsewhere cited industry lawsuits in dropping environmental protections.
Earlier this year, for instance, it eased restrictions on logging old growth in the Pacific Northwest and parts of Northern California after settling a timber industry suit challenging the regulations.
Jiron said he was not aware of any settlement talks in the Sierra case. California Forestry Assn. officials could not be reached for comment.
Efforts to overhaul management of the Sierra's 11 national forests began in the early 1990s with concern over decline of the California spotted owl and loss of the old-growth habitat it favors. Years of scientific and Forest Service reviews produced the Clinton regulations, which signaled a major shift toward ecosystem and wildlife protection and away from commercial timber production.
The Bush administration's move to weaken the Clinton rules was criticized by Democrats as well as by Republican Arnold Schwarzenegger when he was running for governor.
Candidate Schwarzenegger called the Clinton plan "a model of forest ecosystem resource protection" and vowed that "as governor, I will direct all relevant agencies to comply fully with [it] and call on the federal government to abide by the policies."
But since his election, Schwarzenegger has not taken any action to defend the Clinton rules.
Regional Forest Service spokesman Matt Mathes said his agency has received no letters or formal comments from the Schwarzenegger administration on the matter.