Sierra Management Plan under Fire

An innovative Sierra Nevada fire-management plan faces threats from significant loopholes, a logging-intensive federal law, and a Bush administration review, forest ecologists say.
Generally lauded by environmentalists for its biology-based prescriptions, the $12 million Sierra Nevada Framework, approved in January 2001, cuts logging levels by two-thirds on 11.5 million acres in 11 National Forests.
“From the [logging-friendly] US Forest Service, the Framework is the most developed and probably best analysis of fire issues to date,” said Timothy Ingalsbee of the Eugene, Oregon–based Western Fire Ecology Center. “This is the best of what they could do.”
Based largely on congressionally mandated research, the Framework reduces current logging levels of over 300 million to about 100 million board feet annually over the next five years, and restricts logging of trees larger than 12 inches in diameter. It breaks with some fire management conventions, including “mapping out grid blocks of clearcuts,” says Ingalsbee. “Some of the fuel reductions at least attempt to mimic natural fire disturbances.” For the most part, he said, the Framework also avoids “linear fuel breaks,” which create hot, dry conditions that exacerbate fire.
Ranging in elevation from 2,000 to 12,000 feet, the Sierra’s conifer forests include giant sequoia; white, red, and Douglas fir; ponderosa and Jeffrey pine; incense cedar, and others.
The Framework addresses what it calls a 7% to 11% annual decline in California spotted owl populations over the past fifteen years. The plan restricts logging on 4 million acres of old-growth forest, where owls thrive, and maintains 2.6 million acres of designated wilderness areas and scenic river corridors.
But there are loopholes. And the Bush administration is reexamining the original plan, threatening to weaken it further.
“The Framework just barely met [viability] requirements for the California spotted owl and the Pacific fisher,” said Chad Hanson, director of the Cedar Ridge, California–based John Muir Foundation.
Both species need large trees for shelter; the owl uses trees 11 inches or more in diameter. The Framework allows logging of trees up to 20 inches in diameter in “wildland-urban interface,” which it says is habitat for about 34% of the owls in the range.
The Framework also allows virtual clearcuts any time the Forest Service claims that a fire has killed at least 75% of a stand’s trees, but Forest Service Project Manager Steve Clausen confirmed that the agency will often claim as “dead” those trees burned enough to die within about two years. “[This can] result in the harvesting of trees which would
otherwise live,” said John Muir Project legal coordinator Rachel Fazio. “Depending on the species, between 40% and 60% are not dead and will not die from fire injuries.”
Even dead large trees provide shelter for the owl and the fisher.
In allowing logging to fragment habitat, the Framework also fails on “sound conservation and biology principles” that require habitat corridors, Hanson said. As Fazio put it: “The fishers need to connect with their relatives in the Klamath-Siskiyou forests.”
The population of fishers, relatives of mink and otter, “is hanging on by a thread in the Sequoia and southern Sierra National Forests,” said a recent Sierra Nevada Protection Campaign report. “[The Framework] suggests the fisher will be extirpated in less than 50 years.”
The most surprising loophole turned up in a September 2001 proposal — which the Forest Service wants to implement by September 2002 — to allow more than 70,000 acres of controversial fuel break zones in the Plumas and Lassen national forests. The “Administrative Study,” ostensibly to investigate how owls would respond to “small silvicultural treatments,” was mentioned but not analyzed in the Framework. Hanson said it introduces some “devastating” quarter-mile-wide fuel breaks, which remove mature trees up to 34 inches in diameter.
“That’s obscene. That’s the least flammable tree in the forest,” said Ingalsbee. “[The plan] doesn’t reduce the fire danger. It increases it. These little clearcuts cause the air to get hotter and drier and rise and suck out all the moisture from adjacent stands. And when you open up a quarter-mile of grassy, brushy areas to sun and wind, fires can race across, long before firefighters can reach there. It is destructive fragmentation of the forest.”
Some fuel-break options reduce canopy to 40%; California spotted owls need 50% canopy cover to live.
The study also allows half-acre to two-acre clearcuts on approximately 4,000 acres of owl habitat.
The Forest Service’s Clausen said the logging removes fuel, reflecting an overall fire management strategy: “To get the forest so that we won’t have catastrophic fires, you often need to thin stands.”
Under the 1998 Quincy Library Group Act, the Forest Service was supposed to allow fuel-break zones on about 60,000 acres a year for five years in Plumas, Lassen, and the Sierraville district of Tahoe National Forest. From 1999 to 2004, these — along with 8,700 acres of clearcut per year — would have more than doubled the logging over the 1.5 million-acre project area.
The Quincy Act allowed logging of trees up to 30 inches in diameter, but recent Quincy timber sales on the 4,000-acre owl habitat have no upper tree-size limit, Fazio said.
The Framework has significantly reduced the Quincy Plan’s logging of large trees and large areas of canopy. The restrictions apply to Quincy sales only after February 2001, but the Forest Service has grandfathered in more intensive sales and exempted 5,000 acres of two-acre clearcuts that target goshawk habitat, including old growth, Hanson said.
Michael Jackson, an attorney and founding member of the Quincy Library Group, said the Act would restore the forests to a natural open state, for which local creatures have evolved. “In 1904, the number of stems was around 200 per acre, whereas in 2000, there was an average 1,280 stems per acre,” said Jackson. “There are only two ways to return to more open stands; one is a chainsaw, the other is a drip torch.”
But Ingalsbee said the plan fails to emphasize the best proven method of reducing fire danger: the removal of underlying weeds. “As in most every Forest Service fire-reduction project, the first thing they want to do is haul out the logs when they ought to be dealing with the dead needles, twigs, and brush, that don’t have any kind of commercial extraction value but the most fire hazard potential.” According to a successful lawsuit by Arcata-based Californians for Alternatives to Toxics, the Forest Service has also failed to study the effects of maintaining fuel breaks with herbicides. To address the June 2001 herbicides
ruling, the agency has revised an Environmental Impact Statement, now under consideration by US district judge Lawrence K. Karlton.
“It hasn’t held up any sales,” Fazio said.
In December 2001, at the request of the Bush administration’s Forest Service chief, California Regional Forester Jack Blackwell proposed “a broad review of the elements of and basis for the Sierra Nevada Forest Plan Amendment.” The year-long review would re-examine the framework, and the public record it’s based on, “to evaluate any needed changes, [including] more flexibility in aggressive fuels treatment” and “implementation of the Quincy Project.”
Craig Thomas, conservation director for the Sierra Nevada Forest Protection Campaign, a six-year-old coalition of 76 California environmental groups, said the Framework will stand up to the review and any revisions. “Messing with the Endangered Species Act is a big loser for them politically, and they [the administration] know it.”

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