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Feds change management plan of national forests in California

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By Wayne Kirkbride

A former plan on managing national forests, called Plan 2001,is being scrapped by the Bush administration and the changes promise to ignite confrontations between environmentalists and special interests, leading to lawsuits to resolve the issues.On November 18, the head of the U.S. Forest Service in Washington,Dale Bosworth, gave his approval to overhaul the way the 11 million acres of national forest lands are managed in the Sierra Nevada range in California.The primary reason given for the change was to implement actions within the forests that would lessen the threat of wildfires that have destroyed thousands of acres of timberland and hundreds of homes within their range.I spoke to John Buckley, director of the Twain Harte based Central Sierra Environmental Resource Center, (CSERC), about his reaction to this decision, which will affect roughly 2 million acres within Calaveras, Tuolumne, Mariposa and Alpine counties. He gave me some background information on the management plan being shelved, Plan 2001. Under that plan, which was 8 years in the making, with input from work-study groups, and scientists during the Clinton administration, a far-reaching blueprint of operation evolved.That plan called for management that allowed for the use of federal lands by the timber industry and livestock groups, but with built-in protections for wildlife and watershed within the Sierra.

Under Plan 2001, logging and cattle grazing in sensitive areas that might be negatively impacted would have been restricted. Without such a plan,old growth forests that support certain plants, animals, birds and amphibians could be threatened. According to John Buckley, the timber and cattle industry appealed the Plan 2001 with the Forest Service. “Four years ago, Dale Bosworth was appointed head of the U.S. Forest Service by the Bush administration. In 2001, his friend, Jack Blackwell was appointed Regional Forester over the national forests in the Sierra Nevada,” John said. “Blackwell believes in emphasizing timber production and livestock grazing. His predecessor,Brad Powell, was more concerned about wildlife and watershed protection. Powell was given another assignment within the Forest Service.”

Buckley said politics are very much involved in the directions that are now shaping policy with regards to the way forests are managed. “There are ways that would allow for removal of growth that may lead to heavy fuels for forest fires while protecting sensitive wildlife and watershed areas without increasing logging or grazing. This action claims to be part of the Healthy Forest Restoration Act, but in practical terms, it is becoming a boost for the logging industry.” John said that since this new plan of management was announced last January, about 90% of the comments received by the Forest Service were against this change. In John´s view, the agreed-upon Plan 2001 has been usurped by politics and special interests with the public believing it is being implemented to reduce the threat of wild fires.

I spoke to another environmentalorganization spokesman, Craig Thomas, of the Sierra Nevada Forest Protection Campaign about the issues involved. He also pointed out that the Plan 2001 or the Sierra Nevada Framework plan was adopted by the Clinton administration after more than 8 years of study by more than 100 scientists from the Forest Service and academia at a cost of $12 million.It contained a basis for managing old growth forests and reducing the risk of fire in the eighteen national forests in California. According to his organization, the Bush administration created a 5-person “review team” made up of predominately on-scientists that proceeded to overrule the plan. The plan would have protected old growth forests, home to threatened species of wildlife, from timber cutting in excess of 12 inches in diameter. Under the new directives, trees up to 30 inches in diameter can be cut. Thomas stated that only between 8-15% of old growth forests remain in the Sierra from approximately 150 years ago. “These are the areas that are conducive to the propagation of species that will be threatened by logging their areas. Under Plan 2001, 4.2 million acres were committed to be protected, and now they are not”, he said. “The stated reason for scrapping Plan 2001 was the need to remove overgrown forested areas around forest communities.There are over 320,000 acres around forest communities in California that could have been targeted first as a defensive zone. Under Plan 2001,Regional Forester Blackwell said he would target 75% of available resources to eliminate fire dangers around forest communities and 25% in wild lands. Now he is talking about 50% around communities and 50% in wild lands”,he said. “If the emphasis as stated by the Forest Service was to reduce fire dangers to communities, why aren´t they targeting the whole 320,000 acres first? The answer appears to be the pressure being applied politically outside of California, dictating policy that shelves years of study to placate timber interests that would allow up to three times the timber cutting in old growth areas”.

I contacted the Pacific Southwest Regional headquarters of the U.S.Forest Service for their response to Craig Thomas´ remarks about the reasons for changing Plan 2001 by Jack Blackwell, Regional Forester. The response I received came from their spokesman, Matt Mathes. “We decided to improve the 2001 plan because it was not doing an effective enough job of reducing fire danger. Our district rangers working in the field here in California were very concerned that the restrictive and overly complex nature of the 2001 decision was keeping them from doing their jobs. There was no pressure being applied on us from outside the state, this decision was made solely by the top U.S. Forest Service official in California, Pacific Southwest Regional Forester Jack Blackwell. He personally wrote the

wording of the decision, after two years of review, analysis, and working with other Californians inside and outside our agency. His decision was based on science, along with his personal observation of the catastrophic fires in southern California and the fact that similar fuel conditions exist in much of the Sierra Nevada mountain range. If we only thinned the acres immediately outside of communities, the result for the residents would be like living in a castle surrounded by a moat, with dragons roaming the countryside at will. At some point, they would have to deal with the dragons.

Due to overly dense stands of trees and brush fueling them, fires in recent years have been growing bigger and hotter, showing uncharacteristic intensity and resistance to control. These fires roll across the landscape,often throwing embers a mile or more ahead of them. These catastrophic fires have enormous force and power behind them when they approach communities, and are very difficult to stop at that point. We must thin areas across the landscape to slow these fires down. Also, remember that many of these communities depend on tourism,and having fires burn anywhere in the area tends to discourage visitors, and burned areas are not very inviting for recreationists. The smoke from fires drifts for miles, causing health and other problems. And, finally fires in the backcountry destroy the areas needed by California spotted owls and other wildlife. It would be irresponsible for us to ignore the very real danger to these areas.I cannot speak for the timber industry, but I doubt that allowing a few medium-sized trees (up to 30 inches in diameter) to be cut would “placate the timber industry” (also,most of the trees cut will be even smaller than that).”

California state Attorney General,Bill Lockyer, has said he will sue to block the federal government from proceeding with the far-reaching plan to manage 11.5 million acres of Sierra Nevada national forests. “With this action, the Bush administration maintains its full-speed retreat from environmental protection”, he stated.His action along with other probable lawsuits by environmental groups, promise to keep the controversial plan by the federal government in the limelight for some time to come.

Reprinted with permission from Sierra Mountain Times