State sues over plan to boost Sierra logging Forest Service failed to disclose crucial data, Lockyer says

The San Francisco Chronicle
Published Wednesday, February 2, 2005

California Attorney General Bill Lockyer waded into the Sierra Nevada logging fracas Tuesday, announcing a lawsuit against a U.S. Forest Service management plan for the region's 11 million acres of federal woodland that could increase the number of trees that are cut by up to four times what has been allowed.

The suit, filed in the U.S. District Court for eastern California in Sacramento, foreshadowed a decision expected soon by Undersecretary of Agriculture Mark Rey over the fate of the plan, which has been in effect on the Sierra's 11 national forests and one special management area since January 2004.

Rey's decision to review the plan could conclude in any of several ways: He might allow the plan to stand as it is, or order a new planning process with emphasis on more or less logging.

Lockyer's suit, filed in association with similar litigation sponsored by several environmental groups, contends that the Forest Service failed to disclose critical scientific data regarding the impacts the plan would have on the Sierra's old-growth forests, water and wildlife.

Environmentalists applauded the state's entry into the conflict, while timber interests deemed it misguided.

The plan, the brainchild of Jack Blackwell, the agency's regional forester for California, revises a Clinton era "framework" for the Sierra that halted most logging and emphasized forest restoration.

Blackwell's plan shifted the focus from resuscitating old-growth forest ecosystems to wildfire hazard reduction, upped the anticipated annual timber cut from 100 million board feet to 400 million board feet and allowed for the taking of some larger trees to defray fuel treatment costs.

"The Bush administration jettisoned 10 years of work, study and public participation, violating a number of environmental and administrative procedural laws," Lockyer said in a phone-in press conference Tuesday, referring to Blackwell's revision to the Clinton framework.

Lockyer said Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger had been informed of the lawsuit.

"We hope he wishes to participate," he said. "We haven't heard back from him yet."

David Bischel, president of the California Forestry Association, said Lockyer's suit is unfortunate.

"They are badly misrepresenting or they don't understand what the plan proposes," Bischel said. "The only logging that is authorized is thinning for restoration, salvaging burned areas or harvesting trees that pose a risk to life or property."

But Bischel isn't really happy with Blackwell's plan either. His group filed suit against it late last year, contending it ignores the Forest Service's historic mandate of providing a continuous supply of produced timber from the national forests.

Jerry Franklin, a professor of ecosystems analysis for the college of forest resources at the University of Washington, criticized the Blackwell plan for allowing the logging of some older trees.

"The old-growth trees are the structural backbone of the Sierra's forests -- they're essentially irreplaceable," Franklin said. "Removing them may result in some economic or safety benefit, but not an ecological benefit."

Franklin dismissed agency claims that conifers 30 inches in diameter are not truly old-growth trees.

"In Sequoia National Park, of course, a 30-inch (sequoia) tree is a sapling," he said. "In a Jeffrey pine forest, it is immense."

Jim Lyons, an undersecretary of agriculture during the Clinton administration and an architect of the original Sierra Nevada framework, said Forest Service claims that thinning costs could be mitigated by logging bigger trees are specious.

"You look at the costs of laying out a timber sale, the amount of money you spend on roads and monitoring, and it always exceeds the revenue that's generated," Lyons said.

Matt Mathes, a spokesman for the Forest Service's California region, said the vast majority of trees harvested under the plan would be much smaller than the 30-inch diameter maximum.

As to the cost-benefit ratio of timber sales, said Mathes, "It may well be true that expenses exceed revenue in many cases. But these aren't the old days. Now, we're thinning only to reduce fire danger, not logging commercially. "

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