Wide-ranging criticism of a proposal to roll back wildlife and forest protections in the Sierra Nevada has caused the U.S. Forest Service to delay adoption of the changes, which would alter an environmental management plan for the state's most prominent mountain range.
A number of experts, including Forest Service scientists, have faulted the proposal on a variety of counts, saying that the agency has failed to provide a sound scientific justification to weaken the protections.
In response, the Forest Service has postponed a final decision on the revisions -- originally due this fall -- until January.
"We're listening to everything people are telling us, and one of them is we need to do a better job of documenting the rationale for the decision," said Matt Mathes, the Forest Service's spokesman in California. "All this is information Regional Forester Jack Blackwell actively asked for and wants. He doesn't really consider any of this good news or bad news. It's just information he needs to make a decision."
In detailed and sometimes sharp comments submitted to the Forest Service in recent months, several scientists warned that Blackwell's call for stepped-up logging could harm declining wildlife species, possibly pushing them onto the endangered species list. They disputed Forest Service claims that the proposed rollbacks were justified by "new information" on Sierra ecosystems and wildlife. And they raised questions about the plan's fire-reduction strategy.
The Forest Service proposal would rewrite a Clinton-era blueprint to manage 11 1/2 million acres of national forestland in the Sierra.
Adopted after years of study and controversy, the Clinton regulations were intended to stem the decline of wildlife and old-growth ecosystems in the 425-mile-long range by curtailing logging, restricting grazing and emphasizing the use of controlled burns to reduce the wildfire hazard.
Soon after taking office, Bush administration officials launched a review of the regulations, saying that they were too restrictive and too cautious in tackling the wildfire threat. In June the Forest Service released a draft environmental document proposing more aggressive logging to thin the Sierra's 11 national forests, as well as the elimination of some grazing restrictions.
The agency said that the grazing limits hurt ranchers, argued that the logging of more and larger trees would speed forest thinning necessary to reduce the wildfire threat, and cited new data on wildlife populations.
But after reviewing the proposal, federal scientists and academics challenged the assertion of new research findings.
"Largely, I don't think there is enough new information to say we know things ... we did not know three years ago," James Quinn, director of the Information Center for the Environment at UC Davis, said. "I don't think it changes the underlying view that a number of species driving these decisions are known to react badly to grazing or clearing the forest canopy."
Quinn was one of nearly a dozen experts who evaluated the plan at the Forest Service's request. Their initial September report was obtained by The Times.
They concluded that the Forest Service proposal was difficult to read, failed to take into account the possible impact of climate change on the Sierra, and was vague about how fuel reduction projects would be completed and maintained.
"One of the myths of fuels treatments is that all you have to do is thin the trees," commented U.S. Geological Survey research scientist Jan van Wagtendonk. "Taken to its ridiculous extreme, one can prevent forest fires by cutting down all the forests."
Thinning can help stop wildfires from leaping from treetop to treetop, he said. But it is equally if not more important to reduce brush and other flammable material on the forest floor, he said. "These aspects of fuel reduction are not given adequate treatment" in the Forest Service proposal, he said.
The researcher also questioned the Forest Service's contention that smoke and weather concerns would make it impossible to do all the prescribed burning called for in the Clinton Sierra management plan.
"This attitude ignores the fact that the National Park Service is able to find adequate windows for burning thousands of acres adjacent to many of these same forests."
The proposal's fire strategy did win approval from another review team member, UC Berkeley forest science professor emeritus William McKillop, who said he thought that it was appropriate ecologically and financially.
A September review by the Washington, D.C., staff of the Forest Service's Watershed, Fish, Wildlife, Air and Rare Plants office said the Sierra proposal would heighten risks for wildlife.
"One can only conclude that standards in [the proposal] are a prescription for continued owl population declines," the wildlife office report states.
The wildlife staff added that the California regional office failed to adequately describe new information it cited on various Sierra ecosystems. "Some information on riparian and aquatic species is new to the extent that [it] clearly affirms the continued decline of these species identified [in the original Sierra plan].Changing the management strategy for these systems in a manner which increases the risk does not represent new information, but rather a policy decision to accept great risk in the decision."
The Forest Service denied a Times Freedom of Information request for copies of Washington office reviews of the proposed revisions, but the wildlife staff report has been posted on an environmental group's Web site.
In critiques submitted to the Forest Service, other scientists concluded that weakening logging restrictions could pose serious problems for rare wildlife that favor dense stands of older trees.
Existing Sierra guidelines bar the logging of trees larger than 20 inches in diameter throughout much of the forest. Blackwell wants to raise that limit to 30 inches, saying that logging bigger trees would make it easier to thin dense stands and bring in timber revenue to help pay for fuel-reduction work.
"I would like to maintain a canopy of big trees and if we don't have them yet, let's start getting them," Reginald Barrett, a UC Berkeley wildlife professor, said. "If you just thin out everything, it will be basically a clear cut.... So you're basically allowing them to do whatever they want."
In an August letter to Blackwell, Jared Verner, a retired Forest Service owl expert, said that in arguing for more aggressive logging, the Forest Service had overstated the threat of fire to the California spotted owl. "It seems to me that concern for the extent of wildfire damage in the Sierra Nevada is exaggerated," he wrote. Though concurring that steps need to be taken to reduce wildfires, he challenged the notion that fire is destroying old-growth stands, favored by owls, faster than they are being regenerated.
"They want to make these changes, but they don't really tell us why they want to do this," said Vance Vredenburg, a UC Berkeley researcher.