Striking a Balance in the Forest

Times Staff Writer

Over the last 150 years this neck of the Sierra Nevada has been logged, gouged for gold and cultivated for marijuana. Now a quirky crew of locals and an independent-minded federal land manager are chasing something more elusive.

On 1,800 acres of pine and oak scattered between the Middle and South forks of the Yuba River, they are trying to avoid the strife that has so often marked the relationship among agencies that manage federal land, the people who live amid it and environmentalists.

In what one of the participants, Pulitzer Prize-winning poet Gary Snyder, calls "an interesting little experiment," they appear to be succeeding, having fashioned a plan to keep some logging trucks rolling off this Nevada County ridge every year to area sawmills while protecting its streams and most of its oldest trees.

Their small, little-noticed effort fits into a broader Western movement known, in the parlance of policymakers, as collaborative or community-based forest management.

The approach in essence takes away some of the government's power to dictate what happens to public land and gives it to those who live nearby. Supporters promote it as a route out of ceaseless environmental conflict. Opponents warn that inevitably it will morph into a tool -- albeit one wrapped in homespun cloth -- for the timber industry to get its way with resources that belong to all Americans.

Deane Swickard, the head of the U.S. Bureau of Land Management field office in Folsom, sees it as a revolution.

The San Juan Ridge is a 30-mile-long hybrid of the old and new Sierra, where long-settled mining and logging families live next to back-to-the-landers who arrived in the 1960s and '70s. Signs for a yoga commune and Zen Buddhist retreat mingle with clumps of sagging mailboxes staked along dirt roads that wind past unpretentious houses and the occasional marijuana patch.

The country is not grand. Some of it was badly mauled by huge hydraulic gold mining operations in the late 1800s. The forest is on the scraggly side and, except for a California spotted owl or two, doesn't harbor wildlife of much note. Ownership is a confusing hodgepodge of private and federal holdings overseen by the BLM and the U.S. Forest Service.

Swickard's relationship with the 2,000 or so people who live along the ridge began when he was thinking of allowing a radio transmission tower on Bald Mountain, a favorite of locals, and considering selling some of the agency's parcels. Residents protested. Swickard found another place to put the transmitter, and the seeds of cooperation were planted.

They started to sprout when locals approached him later with ideas on managing the ridge's 10 BLM parcels. They had watched as clear-cuts erupted like sores on public land in the 1970s and '80s. They did not want to see the same thing happen in their backyard.

Swickard, described by local craftsman Robert Erickson as "kind of mischievous and very open," was ready for something different. After years of public meetings and comment periods, he thought the government's conventional approach to land-use planning was bankrupt.

"It just doesn't work. It's the royal 'We,' " Swickard said. "We come and do our planning and the peasants come in for three minutes, and the resulting plans are roundly rejected by the public.... Where does the meaningful input come in? In my experience, it didn't."

Such bluntness is surprising in a career federal employee. But Swickard has walked his own path for decades. A Marine helicopter gunship pilot in Vietnam, he later transferred to Camp Pendleton to work as a wildlife biologist, studying ways in which the California least tern could co-exist with war games.

After joining the BLM, he headed the agency's environmental planning in California for several years until, he says, he was "booted out" of the post for refusing to tinker with an environmental impact study that was not to his superiors' liking.

He wound up in the agency's Folsom office, where he has happily remained for two decades, overseeing the management of 230,000 acres of lower-elevation parcels strung like pieces of a broken necklace up and down the Mother Lode country east of Sacramento.

When ridge residents said they wanted a hand in managing the 1,800 acres of BLM land interlacing their property, Swickard replied that if they developed a forest plan that met federal environmental standards, his office would guide it through the approval process.

They founded the nonprofit Yuba Watershed Institute in 1991, and spent the next four years pondering what to do with the BLM parcels, which they called the 'Inimim Forest, after the Maidu Indian word for pine tree. "We just chewed and talked. The democracy of it was very slow," remembered Erickson, who carves chairs out of trees he fells himself.

Swickard held open houses and met with community members for hours at a sitting. Some of the old-timers groused that "a lot of ... hippies were out to ruin the land," said Snyder, who with his earring, sandals, poetry and nature essays was no doubt counted among the potential ruiners.

"People were afraid -- some that we would log too much, others that we would make a regional park," said conservationist Eric Beckwitt, who moved to the ridge from the Bay Area as a child.

In early discussions, he said, there was some tension over a proposal to create an area of critical environmental concern on Bald Mountain. The idea fizzled after a public outcry, which included objections from an outside conservative legal foundation and a local Republican congressman. The discourse then assumed more civil tones, yielding a forest plan adopted in 1995.

Described by Swickard as elegant, creative and scientifically sound, the document sets aside reserves of old-growth trees, bars timber harvest on steep slopes prone to erosion and protects stream banks.

It also calls for logging on about a third of the acreage -- enough to fill 10 logging trucks a year when fully implemented -- and allows the eventual cutting of some large old trees.

That, third-generation Nevada County logger John "Ski" Skoverski said, is a prime reason he agreed to the plan's relatively modest timber cutting levels. "I felt it was better to compromise on some issues. We are at least harvesting. We don't have a diameter class restriction [which would prevent chopping down big trees]. Stuff like that is a major benefit."

The way to compromise was eased by the absence of extreme positions. From the beginning, members of the watershed group wanted what Snyder terms a working landscape: one that neither excluded logging nor allowed a repeat of what he and others considered the over-cutting of western public lands in the 1980s.

Ridge residents embraced an environmental ethic but they also valued wood -- as craftsmen and timber framers and builders of their own homes. Their interest in fostering old growth was thus pragmatic as well as ecological. Big old trees don't just provide an important biological niche. They yield the best timber.

Designed by a diversely talented collection of people and tiny as the vast scale of public land goes, the 'Inimim project may not be easily replicated. For similar reasons, it has not drawn fire from major environmental groups, which are extremely wary of collaborative management efforts.

"My impression all along was that it was a pretty carefully balanced approach and, if anything, probably erred on the side of forest protection," said Jay Watson, California regional director for the Wilderness Society.

Farther to the north in the Sierra, a much larger collaborative effort called the Quincy Library Group has attracted far more attention and controversy.

Covering 2.4 million acres in three national forests and requiring congressional approval, the Quincy plan protects roadless areas and the biggest and oldest trees, but it also permits extensive timber harvesting on 350,000 acres of public land, including mini clear-cuts. The extent of Quincy's logging incensed big national environmental groups.

The 'Inimim plan raises some of the same questions that Quincy does: To what degree should public land be logged, mined and developed? And who gets to decide that?

The 'Inimim Forest is, after all, owned as much by someone who wakes up every morning in a cramped Manhattan apartment as by the residents of San Juan Ridge.

The Sierra provides much of the water for Southern California. Its craggy landscape has inspired millions. Its history of frontier hardship and gold lust occupies a mythic niche in American identity. Should Gary Snyder and Robert Erickson and "Ski" Skoverski -- however well intentioned they may be -- have what amounts to a greater voice in managing pieces of it?

"This is probably one of the most critical questions we have to answer about public lands policy in the United States," said State University of New York environmental sciences professor Donald W. Floyd, who edited a 1999 book on federal forest management. "We are chasing our tails about what is the appropriate balance between local influence and national influence. There is no easy answer."

Supporters, including the Bush administration, espouse community collaboration as an escape from environmental gridlock and as a logical extension of place. Locals presumably know the land best and are also the most directly affected by whatever happens to it.

Daniel Kemmis, a leading apostle of local collaboration and director of the Center for the Rocky Mountain West at the University of Montana, argues that "it's unrealistic [to think] we can protect ecosystems in a sustainable way if the people who live in the ecosystem feel deeply alienated from the management operation there. You really need the active buy-in of the people who inhabit those lands."

But "collaboration is fraught with problems," warned Brian Vincent, California organizer for the American Lands Alliance. It tends, he said, to turn into "big group hugs where the timber industry and local environmental groups feel all warm and fuzzy, but species get left out in the cold."

Environmentalists "are very well intentioned but ill prepared, especially at the local level," Vincent added. "It's very difficult to take a hard line in a small community. You get death threats, harassment, ostracized from the community."

In a critique of a pending Bush administration proposal to create federal "charter forests" managed by local trusts, former Sierra Club Executive Director and Chairman Michael McCloskey last summer challenged the notion that local is better.

"Most of the legacy of erosion, over-cutting, depletion, damaged ranges, mine pollution and species extinction arose out of decisions made in these communities," he wrote in a piece for the Sierra Club.

He could have pointed to the history of San Juan Ridge as evidence. It is home to the Malakoff diggings, a hydraulic gold-mining site so badly ravaged by the local mining community in the 1800s that it led to one of California's first environmental court rulings, an 1884 judge's decision forbidding the dumping of mining debris into rivers.

Indeed, Beckwitt, a prime architect of the 'Inimim project, said he believes one of the reasons it can succeed is because the ridge is no longer as dependent on extractive industries as it once was.

"Even though we have people on the [watershed institute] board working with wood, a lot of the economy is not based on timber, and people can think beyond it," he said. Community collaboration, he stressed, is "not for every community."

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