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Sierra’s forests under siege by lawsuits

California’s forests are under attack, with lawsuits the lethal weapons being brandished.

While more than 8 million California acres face catastrophic fire risks according to the USDA Forest Service, activists, and now the state Attorney General, are again filing lawsuits to halt the care and restoration of our forests.

Some Californians have come to equate caring for forests with leaving them alone. Doing so ignores the dangerous fuel accumulations that now plague our forests. It also dooms California to a repeated cycle of monster fires, deadly mudslides, and devastated communities.



Misguided shortsightedness now poses an immediate threat to some of California’s most cherished forestland Ð the Giant Sequoia National Monument and the Sierra Nevada.

In both cases, the Forest Service has developed management plans based on recommendations from wildlife biologists, fisheries experts, fire ecologists, hydrologists, resource scientists and professional foresters. In both cases, lawyers dismiss those efforts, claiming too much logging and so-called gifts to industry.




There is no doubt these forests are overcrowded, nor that overcrowding can lead to devastating forest health and fire hazard problems. Conditions similar to those in Southern California’s forests before they succumbed to beetles and flames are increasingly appearing throughout the Sierra Nevada and Lake Tahoe basin.

In summer 2002, the McNally Fire burned more than 150,000 acres in the Giant Sequoia National Monument, Sequoia National Forest, and Inyo National Forest. The flames came within one mile of the Packsaddle Grove of giant sequoia.

Since then, precious little has been done to reduce the fire risk in the area and none of the land has been reforested. Forests continue to grow overcrowded while lawsuits are filed. The Forest Service now estimates that it spends 40 percent of its time defending itself in court rather than caring for forests.

Leaving forests alone doesn’t work. Southern California’s horrific fires make clear what professional foresters have known for years: forests need management to be safe and productive. Spot thinning of small trees by itself will not make forests robust or communities safe. If Californians want healthy forests, the focus must be on long-term sustainability.

Sustaining forests requires accommodating ecological and social concerns. Water and air quality, flora and fauna, harvesting and replanting must all be considered in a well-managed balance.

There is also an economic component to keeping forests healthy. In July 2003, the Scientific Advisory Board to the Giant Sequoia National Monument on which I served, unanimously acknowledged this fact when it noted that: “Loss of a local market for timber reduces options for ecological restoration and fire hazard reduction.”

The Clinton administration, incidentally, staffed the Advisory Board with a cross-section of experts to “provide scientific guidance during the development of the initial management plan.” Yet despite the Board’s 27 unanimous “Advisories” being integrated into the Environmental Impact Statement, the management plan is still tied-up in court.

Public safety and forest restoration are the drivers behind planned harvesting in the Sierra Nevada and Giant Sequoia National Monument. Those plans call for reducing fire risk using the people with the skills and equipment necessary Ð professional foresters, loggers, and the specialists they rely on. Plan opponents must one day realize harvesting is only one small aspect of forest management, and allow those trained to care for forests to bring them back to health.

The lawsuits over the Giant Sequoia National Monument and Sierra Nevada forest management plans should be rebuffed and those plans implemented without delay. Many ecosystems that depend on low-intensity fire must be treated mechanically before fire enters the system with catastrophic results. With current fuel loads in the Monument and Sierra, majestic natural treasures will be lost if we leave the forest alone.

Only through sustainable forestry can California’s forests be restored to grandeur. Only by caring for the magnificent resources with which we have been entrusted can we ensure that forests stand tall for generations to enjoy.

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Douglas D. Piirto holds a Ph.D. from UC-Berkeley and is a professor of forestry and department head at California Polytechnic State University, San Luis Obispo. He served on the Scientific Advisory Board to the Giant Sequoia National Monument, is chairman of the Southern California Society of American Foresters, and is a registered professional forester.


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