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By Glen Martin, San Francisco Chronicle
December 8, 2004

A firestorm over fireproofing Program to thin Sierra's forests has environmentalists crying foul

Kimberly Baker        Scott Greacen
Scott Greacen and fellow environmentalist Kimberly Baker pause near a pile of debris left from the last time the area was logged.Chronicle photo by Kurt RogersEnvironmentalist Scott Greacen walks past a group of trees in the Klamath National Forest in northwestern California that are painted blue, indicating they will be cut. Chronicle photo by Kurt Rogers

A controversial Bush administration plan that will triple the timber harvest in the Sierra as a means of fireproofing the region's national forests now appears locked in, with opinions ranging widely and fiercely about its likely effects on the ground.

The Sierra Nevada Forest Plan Amendment -- the brainchild of Bush administration appointee Jack Blackwell, the U.S. Forest Service regional forester for California -- supersedes the Sierra Nevada Framework, a Clinton- era scheme fully implemented in 2001 that emphasized ecological restoration and halted most logging throughout the Sierra's 11 national forests and one special management area.

Blackwell's amendment has been the working model for the Sierra's national forests since January, but until it was officially affirmed by forest service chief Dale Bosworth in November, it was not considered a permanent plan.

At this point, the only way that the amendment can be altered is through a "discretionary review" by Mark Rey, the undersecretary of natural resources and environment for the U.S. Department of the Interior. But such a move is extremely unlikely; Rey has a Dec. 15 deadline to initiate a review and has not signaled any such inclination.

Sierra Logging Map

Environmentalists generally were enraged by Blackwell's plan. They point out that the Sierra framework was a scientifically based process that took nine years to complete, and focused heavily on protecting the Sierra's most vulnerable biological community: Old-growth forests, with their attendant complex of endangered animals such as the California spotted owl and the Pacific fisher.

Blackwell's amendment, on the other hand, was largely his own vision -- one driven by a determination to reduce the vast quantities of "ladder fuels" in the forests, such as brush and thick stands of small trees.

"This (the amendment) was Jack's decision. He personally wrote it," said Matt Mathes, a spokesman for the forest service's California region. "Jack's feeling is it would be a betrayal of the forests to let them burn, a betrayal of the public trust to let homes burn."

As a means of partially funding the fuel reduction, Blackwell authorized the taking of some trees in the 20- to 30-inch diameter range. Commercial foresters and timber companies applauded the move, saying fuel reduction on the scale necessary to fireproof the Sierra would be impossible without the incentive of some salable timber.

But environmentalists have balked at the logging of the bigger trees, saying they are sufficiently large to be considered old growth.

In any event, ambitious thinning projects are now proceeding under the plan. One thing is clear: Under the amendment, the harvest will be much higher than it had been under the original framework -- about 400 million board feet of wood a year compared with 100 million board feet.

Still, timber industry advocates say, that's far lower than the 1 billion board feet that were annually cut in the Sierra through the 1970s and 1980s. And the quantity is not remotely close to the amount of wood the region's forests produce each year.

"The Sierra's forests grow 2 billion feet of wood in an average year," said Dave Bischel, the president of the California Forestry Association. "Additionally, another 500 million board feet die each year from insects and disease."

Bischel said most of the wood taken under the amendment would be "biomass" -- brush and saplings fit only for burning for power production. The total number of larger trees taken for lumber, he said, will make up only 1 to 2 percent of the total harvest.

That latter figure may sound insignificant, but environmentalists point out that it represents 1 to 2 percent of the trees cut -- not 1 to 2 percent of the volume of wood produced.

"Much of the wood that will be taken out is in those larger trees," said Greg Aplet, a senior forest scientist for the Wilderness Society.

"You could have a few hundred or a thousand smaller trees equaling the same amount of wood in one big tree." And with the logging of those larger trees, Aplet said, the decline of the Sierra's last old-growth dependent species -- most notably the California spotted owl and Pacific fisher -- will accelerate.

By allowing the harvest of larger trees, Aplet said, the service is providing the wrong incentives to the industry.

"It is encouraging (thinning) treatments away from the communities and homes where they're most needed and into remote areas, where the biggest timber remains," said Aplet. "What's doubly ironic is that it's precisely these stands of big trees that don't need fireproofing. Heavy concentrations of ladder fuels are rare in older forests, and fires burn far less intensely."

But Mathes insisted the amendment would achieve the fire-risk reduction the original framework was unable to address.

The framework, Mathes noted, relied almost exclusively on low-level prescription fires to reduce fuel loads in Sierra forests. Mechanical thinning -- logging -- generally was forbidden.

But in the real world of California forest management, Mathes said, all options are needed, including mechanical thinning. The amendment, Mathes said, gives the forest service the flexibility it needs to protect the Sierra from catastrophic wildfire.

"We were all gung-ho on the (framework), but district rangers found that they couldn't implement it and meet their fuel reduction goals," Mathes said. "It simply wasn't proving practical. What looked wonderful on paper wasn't translating into effective policy on the ground."

Barbara Boyle, the Sierra Club's regional representative for California, Nevada and Hawaii, characterized that argument as disingenuous.

"They've been calling the framework unworkable ever since Blackwell put forth his revisions," Boyle said. "But ironically, since the amendment has been in place, they've concluded a fair number of (thinning) projects that have met the original framework standard. So that tells me the amendment wasn't about best possible practices or science -- it was about politics."

In the end, however, the fight may prove more a footnote than a turning point in the region's ecological history. In the past 20 years, the Sierra has moved resolutely away from timber as a bulwark of the economy. Dozens of mills big and small have closed across the western slope. They aren't coming back.

Through the 1970s and 1980s, say resource analysts, the Sierra was ruled by the "timber beasts" -- government and private foresters who saw all woodlands as de facto tree farms. The beasts are dead, said Steve Frisch, the natural resources director for the Sierra Business Council, a group that promotes sustainable business practices for the Sierra.

Frisch emphasized that the council remained neutral on both the framework and the amendment. The bigger story, he said, is the way Sierra society has changed in the past 20 years.

Sierra towns, Frisch said, are now prosperous, with professionals and retirees replacing the blue-collar workers who once prevailed. The economic mainstay of the region is now recreation and commercial enterprise, not resource extraction.

"The days of timber guiding the regional economy and public policy are gone forever," Frisch said. "It is now far more economical to buy softwoods from Canada rather than to produce it here. And that's what is happening. No (forest) management policy can change basic international economic realities."

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