Legal disputes don’t end for Sierra plan |

Legal disputes don’t end for Sierra plan

In the thick timber just beyond Nevada City lives a football-sized brown bird whose fate has been punted back and forth through 14 years of studies, debates, legal and bureaucratic wrangling – with no end in sight.

The future of the white-mottled California spotted owl is entwined with 11.5 million acres of national forests running more than 400 miles the length of the Sierra Nevada mountains.

Planning for the 11 national forests began 14 years ago with a three-paragraph memo seeking research on the reclusive owl. Sierra Nevada Framework planning documents now pile about 3 feet tall – not counting administrative appeals and five lawsuits stacked against the most recent decision, still undergoing review by President Bush’s top forestry official, Agriculture Undersecretary Mark Rey.

New regulations this year would further discourage legal challenges of the sort brought by the timber industry, an environmental coalition and Democratic California Attorney General Bill Lockyer against the sweeping Sierra plan. The environmentalist Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility, many of whom work for the U.S. Forest Service, also opposes the revised framework.

Bracketing the owl nesting sites are forests thinned to prevent the spread of fire and encroaching homes as the most populous state expands into areas once left wild. Despite near universal agreement that more must be done to lower the risk of catastrophic wildfires that annually scorch the homes of owls and people across the West, bureaucratic inertia is common nationwide.

Tahoe National Forest Supervisor Steve Eubanks, who helped revise the 2001 plan, toured a sample acre of forest east of Nevada City that would have cost $600 to thin under the 2001 plan – but would generate $2,600 if several larger trees were cut under the 2004 plan, enough to pay to thin three other acres, as well.

That’s misleading, said Agriculture Undersecretary Jim Lyons, a Clinton appointee who now teaches at Yale University in New Haven, Conn., because many timber sales rarely pay for themselves, let alone generate extra income.

“We still save the biggest trees available, and we’re protecting wildlife habitat,” Eubanks said.

Eubanks also said environmentalists’ fears that the revised plan would triple logging on the Sierra are somewhat misleading. Although the revised plan allows for 600 million board feet to be cut each year compared to the original 200 million, that timber has to be prepared for sale and purchased before it is cut.

The 600 million board feet “is still a 60 percent reduction of what the cut used to be” in the heyday of logging. During the 1960s through the 1980s, more than 1 billion board feet would be cut on the forests some years, with the Plumas National Forest supplying 200,000 on its own.

“People have in mind the old clear-cut days,” said forest spokeswoman Ann Westling. “This isn’t the clear-cut days.”

California’s regional forester issued his brief 1991 owl research memo after a Seattle federal judge brought federal logging to a standstill from northwest California to the Canadian border by ruling the Forest Service wasn’t adequately protecting the threatened northern spotted owl.

In 1992, Forest Service research biologist Jared “Jerry” Verner proposed an interim scientific recommendation to end cutting of trees more than 30 inches across – shorthand for saving the large, old forests where the owl lives.

The resulting interim guidelines were supposed to stand just a few years but wound up as official policy until January 2001, when the Clinton administration approved a sweeping plan to manage everything from logging and grazing to recreation and wildlife protection.

The Clinton administration plan was praised by environmental groups but attacked by ranchers and the timber industry. They filed more than 200 objections, the most of any in the Forest Service’s history.

The Bush administration asked for another review, and last year the Forest Service announced its latest revisions. The California Forestry Association then sued in Washington, D.C., followed by suits by environmental groups and Lockyer in Sacramento, each side jockeying for a sympathetic judge.

“The great irony here is, here we are in 2004 and we’re back to Jerry Verner’s scientific recommendation from 1992, 12 years later – the 30-inch diameter limit,” said Forest Service regional spokesman Matt Mathes.

Mathes said it is important to communities to thin for fire protection “and equally important to stop them from moving across a landscape and building up a head of steam toward communities.

Some scientists who spoke for Lockyer’s suit have criticized that part of the plan to cut deep in the forest away from communities as another way to placate timber interests.

Dr. Norm Christenson, an ecology professor at Duke University, said, “Logging large trees in remove areas does not effectively address the real fire risk presented by more combustible small trees and brush. The revised framework ignores scientific consensus on reducing those fuels most important to ignition and spread of wildfire.”

Mathes said USFS scientists would like to see treated areas “across the landscape to act as speed bumps” to halt runaway fire and “to let firefigters have a chance” to catch and put out wildfires.

“If you only do this around towns, it’s like being a castle with a moat surrounded by dragons,” Mathes said. “And some times, you have to deal with the dragons.”

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