Future of Sierra Forests at Stake as Agency Sets Course
Frank Mosbacher spreads out a map of the Eldorado National Forest. Here, he says, is one of the most heavily visited wilderness areas in the country, over there the road used every summer for a massive Jeep jamboree.
Around the map the federal Forest Service spokesman moves, pointing: 800 private cabins on leased lots, hydropower sites that feed Sacramento utilities, timberlands that produced enough wood every year to build 10,000 tract houses, until concerns about the California spotted owl slashed logging levels earlier this decade.
A mountainous patch of pine and fir that is spread out between Placerville and the southern end of Lake Tahoe, the Eldorado offers a primer on the tangle of demands and pressures bearing down on the 12 million acres of national forest land that range across the Sierra Nevada region.
Less than an hour’s drive to the west, in a federal building in Sacramento, a U.S. Forest Service team is trying to sort out those demands, engaged in a painstaking effort to plot the future of the Sierra’s 11 national forests. The outcome will be a test of the agency’s recent attempts to redefine itself and replace its past penchant for chopping down trees with a broader, more environmentally sensitive approach.
Timber companies, environmentalists and back-country users are waiting anxiously to see which way the balance tips, lobbying furiously for their interests.
“We’ve got people across the country watching how we do this,” said Brad Powell, who this winter as the regional U.S. Forest Service head will help select a management plan that will become the blueprint for how much timber is cut, how much old-growth forest and wildlife habitat are protected and which roads are closed--in short, how a wide swath of the Sierra is used.
Stretching from the Modoc south to the Sequoia, the national forests included in the planning effort are used by more than 30 million visitors a year and cover about 40% of the Sierra Nevada range. In the past, each has been managed separately, resulting in a patchwork approach that varied according to the training and temperament of whoever ran the forest.
The new plan, formally known as the Sierra Nevada Framework for Conservation and Collaboration, would for the first time treat all the Sierra forests as a single unit.
Late this summer the Forest Service will release a draft environmental impact statement, listing a number of management options and recommending one. After a three-month public comment period, a final impact statement and decision will be issued.
A Profound Change in U.S. Philosophy
This is not the agency’s first attempt at a regional blueprint. The Clinton administration in 1997 rejected a previous proposal, saying it did not adequately protect wildlife and would permit excessive logging. The year before, another plan was withdrawn before public release because it was at odds with a major scientific survey of the Sierra region.
That congressionally authorized study, which underpins the current planning effort, identified various environmental threats: population growth, a decline in nearly one-fifth of the range’s land animals, widespread degradation of stream systems, and substantial loss of the region’s largest and oldest trees.
Also shaping the management project is a profound change in Forest Service philosophy.
In the years after World War II, critics contend, the service’s timber sales policy treated national forests like virtual tree farms, emphasizing lumber production and felling far too many trees for forest health.
In the last decade, logging levels have fallen dramatically, forced down by environmental concerns and Clinton administration policies. Forest Service chief Michael P. Dombeck has further pushed the agency to a greater emphasis on conservation and recreation since he took office two years ago.
Timber output in the Sierra Nevada national forests has dropped by more than half in the last decade. In the Eldorado, 139 million board feet a year were hauled off the slopes between the 1960s and the 1980s. Now the annual cut is 30 million board feet.
Logging levels across the Sierra forests may well decline further under the new management plan. Project team leader Kent Connaughton said it is likely to call for increased protection of old-growth forests and stream-side areas as well as a reduction in the timber harvest.
The dethroning of the lumber industry has troubled not just timber companies, but those who say the Sierra is turning into a sprawling tinderbox.
Decades of suppressing the natural cycle of wildfire and, some argue, logging practices, have left the range full of deadwood and dense growth that could feed forest blazes and blacken the landscape.
“There’s just too much fuel loading. We need to go in there and log and take care of the fuels buildup,” said Barbara Ferguson, a former Venice Beach homemaker who now lives with her family on 10 acres in the southern Sierra and is one of the leaders of a vocal coalition of recreation and business interests raising red flags about the forthcoming management plan.
Indeed, those concerns are reflected in the Quincy Plan, a separate, congressionally mandated Forest Service proposal that would increase logging limits in the most fire-prone areas of three Sierra national forests.
The debate over logging is occurring within the Forest Service as well as outside.
Bob Smart is about to retire as a district ranger after spending a good part of his four-decade career in the Eldorado. For years, he said, he was uncomfortable with the high levels of timber cutting. Now he worries that the pendulum is swinging too far in the other direction.
“A lot of folks are saying let’s stop logging as a savior of the forest, and when you do that you’re putting the forest in jeopardy,” said Smart, who has commanded firefighting teams throughout the state.
In 1992, 22,000 acres of the Eldorado forest and adjacent private timberland were incinerated, burning for four days and defying 5,500 firefighters before the blaze was quenched.
Today the area looks as though it has been airlifted from Southern California, a lean, brown landscape dotted with replanted saplings and dead tree trunks.
The scene, Smart said, is bound to be repeated on a larger scale if something is not done to thin the forest.
Urging Small Burns, Not ‘Hysteria’
Craig Thomas, a 52-year-old environmental activist with a salt-and-pepper beard who lives on the edge of the Eldorado, sarcastically calls Smart “Mr. Smokey the Bear.” He dismisses the concern about the potential for forest infernos as “hysteria.”
The answer to the fire worries, he and others maintain, is not more logging, but a mixture of small, controlled burns, brush clearance and tree thinning near developed areas.
Marks of past timbering have left other parts of the 600,000-acre Eldorado looking like a moth-eaten blanket of old clear cuts, roads and heavily thinned stands.
“I don’t think we’re asking for a whole lot to try and protect some of those areas that are left,” Thomas said, waving his hand over a black and white aerial photograph of the forest that he has spread across a squat, gray boulder.
He has been challenging timber sales on federal land for years, been hung in effigy at a local mill, threatened and vilified.
Now he works for the Sierra Nevada Forest Protection Campaign, a Sacramento-based environmental coalition formed in 1997.
He said timber cutting in the Eldorado has improved considerably under interim guidelines adopted in 1993 to protect California spotted owl habitat. But too often, he contends, the Forest Service still pushes the envelope of what is permitted, incrementally chipping away at wildlife habitat.
The chocolate-colored spotted owl continues to decline to the point where the protection campaign intends to petition the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to list it as a threatened or endangered species, a move that could force additional protections.
A relative of the threatened northern spotted owl that brought logging to a virtual halt in parts of the Pacific Northwest, the California owl has a hoot reminiscent of a dog bark, dines on wood rats and flying squirrels, and lives among towering trees that can be hundreds of years old.
In national forests, the old growth favored by the owl is a quarter of what it once was, the 1996 congressional survey estimated.
“The owls are an indicator of decline in the entire ecosystem,” said Scott Hoffman Black, director of the protection campaign.
The Forest Service seems to agree that too much old growth has been lost. Team managers said all the options being considered would manage the forests to promote more old growth.
That kind of talk deeply disturbs Ferguson’s group, the Sierra Nevada Access Multiple Use Stewardship Coalition. The organization has roared onto the scene in recent months, stirring opposition to a plan that it argues could cut recreational access to sizable chunks of forest land and end the nearly century-old practice of leasing national forest plots to private cabin owners.
“Our concerns are that it starts off repressive and virtually changes the working forest into an ultra reserve more strict than the park service,” said group Chairman Thomas Barile, a Fresno-area school administrator whose family leases a cabin at Huntington Lake.
The coalition includes chambers of commerce, off-road vehicle and horse packing groups, timber interests and cabin owner associations.
The group has sent out mailers and hired a former Bush administration agriculture official to lobby for it in Washington and prepare a possible lawsuit challenging the plan.
Environmental groups accuse the organization of purposely inflaming debate over the management plan with absurd exaggerations of its possible impact. The Forest Service said that while it is already closing some back roads that are causing environmental damage, it has no intention of evicting the cabin owners or shutting out the public.
“I’m not expecting any significant changes in access to result from the plan,” regional forester Powell said.
On the other hand, Sierra Club Regional Director Barbara Boyle is worried that the Forest Service may not go far enough.
“There’s plenty of information that the whole range is threatened and ecosystems are in decline, and really significant changes need to occur,” she said. “The question is whether the forest system is willing to stand up to its many critics and see if it can restore these forests in the 21st century.”