While relenting on a couple of particularly contentious points, the Bush administration moved closer Thursday to significantly weakening a wide-ranging set of logging curbs and wildlife protections adopted two years ago for national forests in the Sierra Nevada.
A U.S. Forest Service team in California formally recommended changing a Clinton-era plan that had fundamentally altered management of half of the national forest land in California -- the 11 national forests in the Sierra.
The Clinton blueprint had de-emphasized timber production, increased protections for old- growth stands and relied heavily on controlled burning to reduce the risk of wildfire in the Sierra.
The recommended revisions would more than double the amount of logging allowed, to levels not seen since the early 1990s. They would loosen grazing restrictions designed to protect wildlife habitat, as well as logging limits in areas used by the California spotted owl.
Bowing to concerns from inside the agency as well as outside, the team decided not to press ahead with a recommendation to allow loggers to create forest clearings of up to two acres in size. Review team leader Mike Ash said that because other federal and state agencies, as well as some members of his team, had expressed reservations about the idea, it needed further study.
Responding to criticism that it wasn't focusing enough of its fire prevention work near communities, the team is recommending that during the first five years of the plan, 75% of the acreage thinned and logged be near developed areas.
Regional Forester Jack Blackwell, who expects to announce in about two weeks whether he will accept the recommendations in whole or part, indicated that he was generally happy with them.
"This is a good common-sense approach," he said. "It's ecologically balanced. We're leaving the largest trees on the landscape ... and it's economically sound. It allows some of the medium-sized trees to be removed that will offset the cost to the American taxpayer."
The U.S. Forest Service has complained that logging curbs in the Sierra plan, which were adopted in the final days of the Clinton administration, are so complicated and restrictive that they prevent forest thinning necessary to reduce wildfire risk and also drive up the costs of fire-hazard reduction.
On Thursday, the offices of Democratic Sens. Barbara Boxer and Dianne Feinstein said they had not sufficiently studied the recommendations to comment on them. But in the last few weeks, they, along with Gov. Gray Davis and officials of the California Resources Agency, have questioned the need for dramatic revisions in the Sierra regulations.
The review team is nonetheless sticking with most of them, including proposals to:
* Drop restrictions that barred the logging of trees bigger than 20 inches in diameter in much of the forest, or larger than 12 inches in 4 million acres of old- forest reserves. Instead it is proposing to allow the cutting of trees up to 30 inches in diameter across the forests. The amount of tree cover that could be removed also would be increased.
* Drop protections for spotted owl foraging areas, while retaining them for nesting sites.
* Loosen restrictions on livestock grazing in high meadows, home to the rare Yosemite toad and willow flycatcher.
Environmentalists, though pleased that the forest clearing plan had been shelved for now, remained generally critical of the recommendations.
"The changes that are proposed are based on faulty assumptions and biased computer modeling," said Jay Watson, California director of the Wilderness Society.
"There is absolutely no truth to bias about modeling," Ash responded.
John Buckley, director of the Central Sierra Environmental Resource Center, said his organization was less troubled by the amount of proposed logging than by the focus on removing larger trees as opposed to thinning small trees and brush that constitute the greatest fire threat.
The Sierra Club's Barbara Boyle objected to the level of logging and the removal of larger trees.
Blackwell responded: "It would be completely wrong to assume that all the trees 24 to 30 inches would be cut."