Logging Will Cut Deep Into California's Sierra Nevada

WASHINGTON, DC, February 26, 2004 (ENS) - The House Subcommittee on Forests and Forest Health is taking a trip to northern California on Saturday to hold an oversight hearing on the new Sierra Nevada Forest Plan in Jackson, California, near the forests in question.

At issue is a new plan to cut three times more of the Sierra Nevada forests than would have been permitted under the management plan adopted in the last days of the Clinton administration.

Already framed as a decision, the supplemental environmental impact statement (SEIS) to the January 2001 Sierra Nevada Forest Plan Amendment governs the management of 11 national forests in California.

The new plan was written to address the wildfire risk from dense, spindly, young trees that have served as fuel for devastating California wildfires over the past several years. The original Clinton administration plan "failed to acknowledge the serious conditions present in California's Sierra Nevada," the subcommittee said in a statement Wednesday.

The new SEIS calls for the removal of 115,000 acres per year, or 3.5 million board feet, a level of logging not conducted since the 1980s.


Fires have blazed through California forests over the past several years. (Photo courtesy USGS)
The new plan will cost $50 million per year, but the Forest Service only has $30 million to cover the cost, so the agency must raise $20 million through commercial timber sales. Companies that clear a certain amount of brush and saplings will earn the right to log a number of larger trees.

Old growth areas, off limits under the Clinton plan, will be subject to logging. Trees up to 30 inches in diameter can be cut to raise the money to clear out brush and small trees. Under the Clinton plan, trees up to 20 inches in diameter could be logged, but the larger trees would be left standing.

The Clinton plan allowed logging of up to 111 million board feet per year, the equivalent of 7,400 three bedroom homes. The new plan raises the yearly amount to 330 million board feet, the equivalent of 22,000 three bedroom homes.

The new plan was developed by more than 30 Forest Service professionals, including biologists, fuels specialists, ecologists, fire behavior specialists and others, and with help from comments from nearly 56,000 people, said Pacific Southwest Regional Forester Jack Blackwell, who will testify before the subcommittee on Saturday.


Pacific Southwest Regional Forester Jack Blackwell (Photo courtesy U.S. Forest Service)
"Extremely hot, intensely burning catastrophic fires sweep through overly dense forests destroying old growth trees, wildlife habitat, and wrecking people's lives." Blackwell said, introducing the plan on January 22. "The size and intensity of wildfires are increasing dramatically. They are making the work of our firefighters more dangerous. I cannot let that continue on my watch. It will take years of concerted effort to significantly reduce the intensity of these fires, but the important thing is to get started now."

California Senators Barbara Boxer and Dianne Feinstein, both Democrats, are concerned that the new plan will threaten old-growth stands and California spotted owl habitat. "We will also see the removal of some of the larger, more fire resistant trees in the forest," Boxer said in a statement. "This is hardly a sensible step if our goal is to reduce the potential for catastrophic wildfires."

But Blackwell said the Forest Service has already addressed those concerns. Refined analysis between draft and final stages of the SEIS, said Blackwell, resulted in a reduction by more than half of the number of acres to be thinned in specific areas important to owls. Another change is to place more emphasis on followup maintenance of treated sites.


California redwood forest (Photo courtesy USGS)
"We must make our forests fire safe." Blackwell said. "Large, old trees will not be cut. They're not the problem. We need big trees for wildlife habitat and other values. Relatively few trees between 20 and 30 inches in diameter will be thinned. The emphasis will be on unnaturally dense stands of smaller trees and brush. We've got to remove some of this dense growth in strategic sites. It may look beautiful, but it's deadly."

The revision has angered conservation groups. Jay Watson of the Wilderness Society told the "San Francisco Chronicle" earlier this month that the new plan is "a public relations con job."

“The Bush administration is scrapping a balanced plan with broad support from environmentalists, the state of California, the public, and the scientific community to reward his campaign contributors in the timber industry,” says Craig Thomas, executive director of the Sierra Nevada Forest Protection Campaign. He likes the Clinton plan which preserves key habitat for species such as the owl and the fisher.

But at least one congressman on the subcommittee is angry at environmentalists who he says have allowed the risk of fire to grow too high.


Representative Wally Herger of California (Photo courtesy Office of the Congressman)
Representative Wally Herger, a California Republican, said that even the new SEIS does not go far enough to address fire risk. "The public deserves to know that, largely due to the heavy-handed influence of the radical environmental community, we are going to implement a forest management plan that woefully low-balls the fire risk in the Sierra Nevadas," said Herger.

"Reducing fuels at an alarmingly slow rate, the existing Framework would take over 70 years to treat the current eight million at risk acres of forest," Herger said. "The longer we delay proper forest management, the more we needlessly subject our communities and our families to the compounding risk of wildfires."

Representative John Doolittle, a California Republican, linked controlling fire risk with his goal of getting more timber out of the national forests. "The bottom line is that if we are truly committed to protecting our citizens from fire and to restoring the economies of timber communities throughout Northern California, we must implement a long term strategy that fulfills the Forest Service's legal obligation to provide for a continuous supply of timber," he said.

"As Chairman of the Committee on Resources I believe it is critical for the committee to get input on Federal policy from those who matter most," said Congressman Richard Pombo, a California Republican. "That's why we are taking the committee out of Washington and bringing the policy to the communities who are affected by it. As such, I am eager to hear testimony on the Forest Services' Sierra Nevada Plan from northern Californian's elected officials, forest management experts, and local citizens."

The witness list for the hearing includes state legislators, scientists, a water control board, and rural counties, in addition to Blackwell, but no representatives from conservation groups are on the list.

Blackwell will tell the committee that the new SEIS is a good plan for California's forests. It will reduce the acres burned by severe wildfires by more than 30 percent and double the acres of large old growth trees over the next 50 years, he has said.

"Spotted owl nesting habitat is also projected to nearly double over the next 50 years," he said, and around forest communities, 700,000 acres will be thinned within 20 years, "giving firefighters a fighting chance at protecting them from severe wildfires."

The decision, which does not apply to private land, amends forest plans for the 11 national forests effective March 1. There is a 90 day appeal period to the Chief of the Forest Service.

Read the new management plan online at: http://www.fs.fed.us/r5/snfpa/final-seis/