Federal Plan to Log Sierra Nevada Draws Legal Actions

WASHINGTON, DC, March 1, 2005 (ENS) - The timber industry rewrote a comprehensive plan for managing 11 national forests in California and Nevada under the guise of a U.S. Forest Service process, according to a legal claim made Monday by Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER). The national organization, which represents government workers in natural resources agencies, alleges that in the process, protections for old forests and native wildlife were overturned.

PEER is filing to intervene in a lawsuit brought by the California Forestry Association and the American Forest & Paper Association that seeks to triple the annual timber harvest from national forests in the Sierra Nevada, a rate of logging that the Bush administration also is seeking through an administrative route by its rewrite of the Sierra management plan.

The California Forestry Association is the statewide trade association that represents California’s forest industry, including 90 percent of the primary manufacturers of forest products.

Lassen

Lassen National Forest is one of the 11 forests covered under the rewritten management plan. (Photo courtesy USFS)
PEER says it is acting to prevent the Bush administration and the timber industry from locking in the higher logging levels through a settlement of the industry suit brought against the Forest Service in Washington, DC.

Despite the suggestion of a disagreement implied by a lawsuit, PEER contends, the industry and the Bush administration "actually agree with each other and that a friendly settlement of the suit would insulate their deal from legal challenges" to the 2004 Sierra plan brought by conservation groups and the California Attorney General in February.

The 2001 Framework is a management plan that affects 11.5 million acres in 11 national forests in the 430 mile long Sierra Nevada mountain range, spanning the northeast border with Oregon to the Sequoia National Forest in the south. It amended each of the Land and Resource Management Plans for the Humboldt-Toiyabe, Modoc, Lassen, Plumas, Tahoe, Eldorado, Stanislaus, Sierra, Sequoia, and Inyo National Forests.

In 2004, the Bush administration threw out the Sierra Framework of 2001 in its entirety and substituted the January 2004 Sierra Nevada Forest Plan Amendment.

"The years of work that went into developing the Sierra Framework of 2001, a model plan of which the Forest Service should have been proud, were chucked out the window with barely a wink and a nod," said California PEER Director Karen Schambach.

Forest Service Chief Dale Bosworth "affirmed" the amendment in November 2004 after receiving more than 6,200 appeals to the new plan.

"After reviewing the appeals, I have found that the Pacific Southwest region complied with all applicable laws, regulations and policies in amending the 2001 plan," said Bosworth.

"The appeals covered a wide range of natural resource issues, including fire and fuels, forest management, riparian and meadow ecosystems, terrestrial wildlife and aquatic species, range management, road management and social and economic considerations," Bosworth said.

Bosworth did require two changes in the 2004 amendment. The chief instructed Forest Service Pacific Southwest Regional Forester Jack Blackwell to reinstate the standard for plant surveys.

Second, the region "must further develop the plan’s evaluation and adjustment requirements in the adaptive management strategy," Bosworth said. The region will have until May 18 to respond to these instructions.

According to the declaration filed by Schambach on PEER's behalf, the Forest Service had an "open door" policy for the timber industry in developing the 2004 rewrite, while environmental groups were allowed a single two hour meeting to discuss the changes.

The Forest Service conducted no public hearings on the 2004 revised management plan, in contrast to the 2001 plan which was produced after 60 public hearings.

Shambach states in her declaration that she did attend an informational workshop in Amador County held by a Congressional Natural Resources subcommittee at which there was discussion of the 2004 Sierra plan. "That discussion was dominated by [California Republican] Congressmen [John] Doolittle and [Richard] Pombo, who attacked the plan as not allowing sufficient logging. No public testimony was taken." Pombo chairs the House Committee on Resources.

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Dead trees like these in the Sierra Nevada are of concern as a wildfire hazard. (Photo courtesy USFS)
PEER claims that the Forest Service "repeatedly overruled its own specialists and misused data in order to justify unsupportable timber harvest levels."

The Service, "drove its scientists who disagreed with the increased logging targets out of the agency. In one instance, a specialist found himself blackballed from obtaining employment as a private consultant," PEER alleges in its intervention.

But Chief Bosworth said, "The Forest Service’s Pacific Southwest Research Station in Albany, California, conducted a review of the science used in the supplemental EIS and found that it was consistent with current science." The supplemental EIS, or Environmental Impact Statement, is the document that underlies the January 2004 Sierra Nevada Forest Plan Amendment.

In February, California Attorney General Bill Lockyer and a coalition of conservation groups filed separate lawsuits in federal court in Sacramento that challenge the legality of the 2004 Sierra plan.

"With no basis in science and no new facts, the Bush administration has jettisoned the product of more than 10 years of study, public participation and consensus building," said Lockyer. "What the Forest Service disingenuously calls a fine-tuning is really a complete overhaul that will make our communities less safe from fires at the same time it damages treasured forests."

The defendants in Lockyer's lawsuit are: the U.S. Department of Agriculture and Secretary Mike Johanns; Mark Rey, U.S. Agriculture Undersecretary for Natural Resources and the Environment; the U.S. Forest Service and Chief Dale Bosworth; and Blackwell.

Lockyer and the conservation groups contend that the Sierra Framework of 2001 reasonably balanced logging and other uses with preservation of old growth forests, wildlife and water quality. At the same time, the 2001 Framework safeguarded communities from wildfires.

forest

As a restorative measure, wheat is planted on the Sequoia National Forest following the 2001 Highway Fire, which burned 1,680 hectares of mixed ponderosa pine-oak-chaparral. (Photo courtesy USGS)
"The Forest Service is now run by a former timber industry lobbyist, Mark Rey, whose mission, before he returns to the private sector, is to radically undercut sustainable forest policies," Schambach said.

After Bosworth's affirmation of the 2004 amendment, Rey had 15 days to decide whether or not to conduct a discretionary review of Bosworth’s decision. He did not choose to conduct a review.

The California attorney general alleges that the Bush administration gave the 2001 plan virtually no time to work before it began the process of revising it. But the 2004 amendment, Lockyer's complaint states, does not merely revise the 2001 version; it revokes it.

In the process, the 2004 plan more than quadruples timber harvesting and erodes wildlife and habitat protections, the Lockyer's complaint says. Additionally, Lockyer and other critics say the 2004 plan actually will increase the threat wildfires pose to California communities.

"The USFS falsely told the public the 2004 Framework was a mere adjustment to 'better achieve the goals' of the original plan. "In fact, however, the 2004 Framework is opposed to the 2001 Framework in virtually every material respect related to the protection of wildlife and habitat and the approach to scientific uncertainty, and reflects the agency's new willingness to risk long term, irretrievable losses in exchange for short term economic gains," the complaint alleges.

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Forest Service managers discuss "fuels treatment" in owl habitat in the Sierra Nevada. (Photo courtesy USFS)
In approving the 2004 Framework, Lockyer claims, the USFS acted in an "arbitrary and capricious" manner to reach a "predetermined" outcome. Specifically, the USFS' 2004 plan has no foundation in new science, new facts or changed circumstances, according to the complaint.

The agency violated the National Environmental Policy Act and the federal Administrative Procedures Act, which governs regulatory decision-making, the California attorney general alleges. Those violations include the failure to - base the action on a "reasoned analysis," adequately assess the environmental and other effects of replacing the 2001 Framework with the 2004 revision, evaluate alternatives to rejecting the 2001 Framework, and account for incomplete or unavailable information.

To buttress the contention that gutting the 2001 Framework was predetermined, Lockyer's complaint notes that while the USFS supposedly was conducting an objective review, it hired a public relations firm to "promote the agency's predetermined decision to dismantle the 2001 Framework."

The complaint adds, "The result was the Forest Service's ‘Forests with a Future' campaign, which played to the public's fears concerning wildfire, falsely minimized potential impacts to wildlife and habitat from increased timber harvesting, and advocated more active management and removal of large trees."

Lockyer stressed protecting communities from wildfires must be a top priority for the state and federal government. But he noted the 2001 Framework accomplished that objective while protecting old growth trees, wildlife and recreational uses of the forest.

The 2001 plan featured a balanced approach that included prescribed burning, letting wildfires burn as part of the natural process (where such fires would not threaten people or property), and cutting and clearing where required to reduce fuel loads. In fact, the USFS itself concluded the 2001 Framework was consistent with the National Fire Plan.

By contrast, the 2004 Framework relies heavily on logging big trees. Experts say such an approach actually reduces fire safety for communities because it focuses on eliminating large, fire-resistant trees far away from homes instead of the smaller trees and brush that fuel fires closer to residential neighborhoods, Lockyer observed.

"We do not have to choose between fire prevention and environmental protection," said Lockyer. "The Forest Service seems to think otherwise, but we can have both. We can address our very real wildfire problem without the revised Framework, and without its heavy emphasis on harvesting old-growth trees. To see how, we need look no further than the original Framework."

The conservation groups which filed suit include - Earthjustice, Sierra Nevada Forest Protection Campaign, Sierra Club, Natural Resources Defense Council, Center for Biological Diversity and the Wilderness Society.

More Forest Service information is online at: http://www.fs.fed.us/r5/snfpa/

View PEER's motion to intervene at: Read PEER’s motion to intervene at: http://www.peer.org/docs/ca/2005_28_2_intervention.pdf