Sierra Nevada Framework proposals under review
Several prominent environmental groups want the Sierra Nevada Framework to stay just as it is. The timber industry, off-road groups and even some ski resorts want to kill the plan entirely.
But the architects of the framework, the United States Forest Service, will do neither — instead, they will reexamine the plan that was two-and-a-half years and $12 million in the making and went through nine alternative plans.
United States Forest Service Chief Dale Bosworth made the announcement late last year after first affirming the plan that covers more than 11 million acres of national forest land in the Sierra.
Jack Blackwell, who took over as the Pacific Southwest Regional Forester in December and is the top USFS official in California, has been charged with overseeing the “board review” of the plan by a six-member panel over the next year.
Environmental groups that have supported the framework since its inception considered the review a setback.
Shortly after the announcement by the USFS’s top brass, Jay Watson of the Wilderness Society, said he feared the review was a guise used by the Bush administration to water down the current framework. Other environmentalists fear the revisions may be a backdoor attempt to increase logging in the Sierra.
But after meeting with Blackwell on Jan. 28 to discuss the review, Watson sounded cautiously optimistic and was quick to point out that the plan is already an approved document.
“Yes, the plan is under review, but the framework has already been affirmed and implemented,” Watson said.
Blackwell said the review should be concluded within a year.
“So at a minimum, the Jan. 12, 2001 decision [to implement the framework] will be in effect for two years. And that will give us time to try implementing the plan,” said USFS spokesman Matt Mathes.
The Sierra Nevada Framework is a comprehensive management plan for 11.5 million acres of national forest land from the southern Sierra Nevada to the Oregon border.
The plan covers the Modoc, Lassen, Plumas, Tahoe, Eldorado, Stanislaus, Sierra, Inyo and Sequoia national forests. It also rewrites the management plan for the Lake Tahoe Basin Management Unit and portions of the Humboldt-Toiyabe National Forest in Nevada.
It does not apply to private lands, such as those owned by timber giant Sierra Pacific Industries.
The roots of the framework go back to the first Bush administration. The plan was initiated in hopes of averting the timber wars that plagued the north coast of California in the 1980s and early 1990s after the spotted owl was listed as an endangered species.
“What started all this was the listing of the spotted owl as an endangered species … and a [federal judge’s] decision that virtually shut down logging overnight,” Mathes said. “We took one look at that and said let’s not let that happen in the Sierra Nevada.”
With its preemptive ideals, the plan seeks to sustain old-forest ecosystems, protect and restore riparian and meadow ecosystems, improve fire and fuels management, combat noxious weeds and sustain hardwood forests on the lower west side of the Sierra.
“I believe that our new management direction will protect and improve habitat for species and avoid the need for listings as threatened or endangered,” said former Pacific Southwest Regional Forester Brad Powell. Powell, who has since transferred, was the top forest service official in California at the time and picked which of the nine plans would be implemented. Blackwell replaced him in December.
The rules, regulations and goals of the plan will shape philosophies about managing national forest lands and will decide what activities are appropriate for them.
But the repair and protection that the plan offers much of Sierra forest land will come at the expense of activities like logging and mining.
The current plan will cut the amount of board feet harvested from national forests by up to 70 percent and will significantly curtail the amount of land available for grazing.
But according to Mathes, such reductions had begun well before the framework was implemented.
“The timber sale program in national forests in all of California had been going down anyway. The amount of board feet coming out of national forests had already gone from 1.8 billion board feet in the early 1980s to about 400 to 500 million board feet in recent years,” Mathes said. “And that’s not because of the framework, it’s because scientists were telling us we can’t continue to cut at that rate and protect the forest and riparian habitat.”
Last November, Bosworth issued his decision that affirmed the Sierra Nevada Framework, while also directing Blackwell to reexamine some aspects of the forest management plan.
Bosworth had received 276 appeals challenging the framework and its final environmental impact report.
“The bulk of the appeals came from timber industry representatives, grazing interests and they came from off-highway vehicle groups,” said Mathes.
Scott Denham, who runs a snowmobile business in Russel Valley, said he fears the framework will phase him out of business because of the restrictions it places on motorized access to national forests.
“I’m really hoping the Forest Service is trying to find a balance between multiple use and ecological sustainability, because right now, the way it is written, it’s all ecological sustainability,” Denham said.
Bosworth’s decision was also appealed, and would have gone to Secretary of Agriculture Ann Veneman.
But Veneman recused herself from ruling on the plan because she had previously done legal work for one of the appellants and most vocal critics of the framework, the Sierra Nevada Access, Multiple Use and Stewardship Coalition (SAMS).
That left the decision to the Undersecretary of Agriculture Mark Rey, who affirmed Chief Bosworth’s decision and the plan itself.
“I affirm Chief Bosworth’s decision to [uphold the framework] and …his instruction to [Blackwell] to reexamine certain aspects of the plan. I am confident that the regional forester’s action plan will address a number of issues raised in the appeals that I reviewed,” Rey said in a prepared statement Dec. 27.
Shortly after Rey’s decision, environmentalists thought they had scored a major victory.
“Today the sun is shining on California’s Range of Light,” Watson said, referring to the term for the Sierra coined by John Muir.
But well before Bosworth’s decision to review the framework, USFS officials said they realized no one plan was going to please everybody.
“There is no one perfect decision,” Mathes said. “But ultimately, what you come up with is a scientifically credible, legally defensible plan.”