The U.S. Forest Service waged an unusual public relations blitz last week to sugarcoat a significant rollback from a long-studied plan to coordinate management of 11 national forests from the Oregon line to Bakersfield. But multimedia shows and buzzwords don't hide the fact that the changes to the Sierra Nevada Framework would allow a substantial increase in commercial logging in the public forests. The new plan would allow the cutting of trees of up to 30 inches in diameter in most forest areas, whereas the framework generally permitted the felling of trees of up to 20 inches in diameter. Bigger trees have far more commercial lumber value.
Regional U.S. Forester Jack Blackwell says the increased logging is needed to reduce wildfires, especially near communities along the forest edge, and to raise the money needed to pay for thinning the forests. Blackwell cited huge wildfires in recent years and repeatedly said, "How many more wake-up calls do we need?" He ignored studies that showed that heavily logged areas often were the most fire-prone.
The policy is an obvious extension of the Bush administration's overall Healthy Forests program to log more trees in the name of fire prevention. Blackwell said catastrophic fires like last year's 150,000-acre Sequoia National Forest fire must not be allowed to happen again, ignoring the fact that only about 8% of the 150,000 acres were severely damaged, as The Times' Bettina Boxall reported last fall. The framework already provided for the thinning of forests around built-up areas, including cutting 30-inch trees.
There's no doubt that the framework, 10 years in the making, is complex and needs clarification. But Blackwell's 166-page plan drops specific findings and replaces them with vague directives and "flexibility for forest managers." For example, the framework called for meadow vegetation 12 inches high, to protect the great gray owl. Now it asks for "a height commensurate with site capability and habitat needs of prey species."
Particularly vague and troubling is the lack of guidelines for the number of large trees that could be cut and under what conditions. Forest Service officials say they foresee the cutting of only a few trees per acre, but nothing is spelled out. There is time during the comment-and-review period this summer to restore such specifics.
The Clinton administration had properly cut back on commercial logging in favor of forest and wildlife protection and recreational use, a growing economic force in California.
State Resources Secretary Mary Nichols calls the new plan unacceptable. She already has offered to help the Forest Service provide fire protection to forest communities without unraveling the Sierra framework. It's a choice that would respect decades of expert labor on what's best for the forests.