Arguing that more logging is needed to avoid a fiery holocaust, the Bush administration took steps Tuesday to significantly scale back Clinton-era timber and wildlife protections in the forests of the Sierra Nevada.
The new plan announced here by the region's top U.S. Forest Service official would more than double the timber volume to be cut in the Sierra, allow logging of mature trees up to 2 1/2 feet in diameter and ease grazing restrictions intended to protect wildlife.
Jack Blackwell, Pacific-Southwest Regional forester, said a shift was warranted because a key remedy proposed in the Clinton plan -- controlled burning to reduce tangled undergrowth and ease the risk of wildfire -- simply couldn't get the job done fast enough. A boost in logging, he said, is needed to thin the forests.
"How many more wake-up calls do we need?" Blackwell intoned repeatedly during his 25-minute speech in a hotel ballroom packed with timber and cattle industry officials and leaders from fire-threatened rural communities. "Look at what's happening all over the West."
In recent years, catastrophic fires have rippled through tinder-dry forests, overgrown after years of aggressive firefighting extinguished low-intensity fires that cull brush and small trees that can fuel a major blaze.
Blackwell's new plan drew sharp rebukes from environmentalists, state officials and a congressman.
Rep. George Miller (D-Martinez), former chairman of the House Resources Committee, said Blackwell was tossing aside years of work to benefit the timber industry. "This administration cares only about the timber production value of our forests," he said, "rather than the balanced uses that Californians have worked so hard to achieve."
Environmentalists predicted the plan would bring lawsuits and push the California spotted owl and other fragile species onto the federal endangered list.
"I think a trip to the federal courthouse is very likely if they stick to their guns," said Craig Thomas, director of the Sierra Nevada Forest Protection Campaign. "This is a 180-degree turn."
Mary Nichols, state resources secretary, said the new plan "fits a pattern that is characteristic of this administration," undercutting Clinton policies. By abandoning the original plan, she said, attempts to clean up forests around Sierra towns would be delayed for yet another summer fire season.
The original plan, crafted during more than a decade of debate, was adopted in the final days of Clinton's presidency in January 2001. Blackwell's new version must now survive a short, supplemental environmental review, which is expected to play out this summer, with a final decision this fall.
Blackwell calls for cutting 450 million board-feet of lumber each year in the Sierra. In 2002, Sierra logging was limited to about 150 million board-feet.
The new plan, fashioned on recommendations in a 169-page report by his own forestry managers, "builds on the strength" of the original Clinton-era plan, Blackwell said. "We're not starting over," he said. "We're not starting from scratch."
The former regional forester who signed off on the Clinton plan, Brad Powell, spoke briefly to offer his support for Blackwell's efforts.
Blackwell vowed to focus 75% of the thinning over the next five years around towns ringed by forest, giving local leaders a say in what gets cut first.
Whereas the Clinton plan barred logging of trees bigger than 20 inches in diameter in much of the forest, Blackwell's new blueprint would let lumberjacks take timber up to 30 inches in diameter. Blackwell justified the logging of those bigger trees -- often the most fire resistant -- as necessary to defray the costs of removing less marketable small trees and brush.
Blackwell said prescribed burning, the Clinton plan's preferred method for cleaning up forest undergrowth, wasn't working fast enough because of limits resulting from weather conditions -- low humidity and high winds often prompt the canceling of burns -- and complaints from neighbors about smoke.
As for the fate of the California spotted owl and other creatures, Blackwell said, the Forest Service would do everything it could to maintain a stable population. If the owls began to suffer, he said, "we'd back off."
Nichols said the plan sends management of the Sierra's federal forests "back to the 1980s, when the attitude of the forest service was 'Trust us.' " She said the public largely would be muzzled and logging could be boosted "almost without limits." Lawsuits would dog nearly every timber project, she predicted.
Environmentalists said they find it hard to believe U.S. foresters would allow axing of just a few big trees per acre. "You need limits; otherwise, they'll go over the line," said Jay Watson of the Wilderness Society. Warren Alford of the Sierra Club called it a "recipe for more commercial logging, more lawsuits and the paralysis of analysis."
Dave Bischel, California Forestry Assn. president, countered that Blackwell's plan is focused on curbing fire danger, not boosting the timber industry. He said the original Clinton plan was flawed and would have pushed the Sierra toward repeated infernos. Blackwell's proposal, he said, "is a win-win" for fire safety, logging and wildlife.