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Forest Plan Losing Its Way

January 30, 2004

If the Bush administration is serious about staving off catastrophic fires in the Sierra Nevada's old-growth forests, it will allocate the full $760 million authorized in the Healthy Forests Restoration Act for clearing undergrowth and dead trees.

Unfortunately, the current plan aims to save money by financing the job with private logging in the Sierra. Companies that clear a certain amount of brush and saplings would earn the right to take a set number of larger, sometimes much larger, trees. The Forest Service would also shift tree-thinning funds deeper into the forests and away from the towns endangered by potential fires.

The plan makes too many radical departures from the Sierra Nevada Framework, a carefully balanced plan of forest management and preservation developed over 10 years by the federal government and Western states.

It was based on rigorous science that recognized the needs of communities, forests and logging companies. Its most important provision was designating 4 million of the Sierra's 11 million acres of forest as old-growth reserve, in need of the most delicate treatment. There, only the small trees that fuel fires could be taken, and the overhead canopy could not be reduced by more than 10%.

The framework had complex requirements, and even environmentalists conceded that it needed simplifying, but the Forest Service squashed the subtlety out of it by declaring almost all forest areas equal, whether adjacent to homes or deep in the wilderness.

Though it provides extraordinary safeguards for areas of forest surrounding the nests of spotted owls, that's a tiny fraction of previously protected acreage. In almost all of the 4 million acres, the new plan allows loggers to take trees of up to 30 inches in diameter and reduce canopy by 30%. This appears to defy provisions of the forest restoration act that any work on old-growth stands must retain the large trees.

For the last 10 years, aggressive cutting has been allowed in areas closest to homes to prevent their destruction by fire. Yet precious little of such forest-thinning has occurred near those communities, and the new plan, by opening more remote areas to the same kind of cutting, does little to help fire-threatened towns.

The Sierra plan can be appealed for 90 days after its official filing today. Appeals from groups such as the Sierra Club are sure to flow. The question will be whether an administration intent on opening the forest to heavier logging will pay attention.

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