Link: Cooptation or constructive engagement?


Cooptation or constructive engagement?: Quincy Library Group's effort to bring together loggers and environmentalists under fire

By Patrick Mazza

Aug. 9, 1997

Over the past few years two key questions have steadily emerged from the thicket of debates about public forest management. Should forest activists sit down and negotiate with timber interests in local stakeholder groups? What role, if any, should logging have in fire prevention and forest health?

A bill covering 2.5 million acres of national forest at the hinge of the Cascades, Sierras and Great Basin brings those questions to center ring. The answers are likely to resound for years to come.

The bill passed the House in July by 429-1, at this writing expected to pass the Senate by a similar margin, would mandate a management plan developed by the Quincy Library Group for the Plumas, Lassen and part of the Tahoe national forests. The collaborative effort among local environmentalists, local officials and timber industry representatives has been under way since 1992 in the Northern California mountain town surrounded by national forest. The plan, its proponents say, is a landscape-level experiment aimed at reducing fire dangers by logging away dense and unnatural undergrowth.

So much biomass has accumulated from fire suppression and high-grading off big trees, they say, that logging levels can double and timbering can pay for itself while restoring the forests to a more original condition resistant to catastrophic fires.

"If I thought this forest could survive without being cleaned up, I would support zero cut," said Mike Jackson, a Quincy environmental attorney who was one of QLG's original members. "After 150 years of pounding this is not a normal ecosystem. We've got 50 years worth of work to get back to a natural cycle."

Ever since the Forest Service in 1994 floated the Western Forest Health Initiative calling for similar logging plans, environmentalists have been raising alarms about a clever ploy to raise logging levels. With QLG, some national environmentalists see their worst nightmare coming true, local environmental support used by industry to legitimate forest health logging and ram it through Congress over their objections.

Felice Pace of the Klamath Forest Alliance, himself a veteran of a failed collaborative process, sees a design:

"If I was a strategist looking at the environmental community," the Northern California forest activist said, "I would see the weakness is in relationships between the grassroots and the nationals. Our weakness is being exploited."

The QLG bill passed so overwhelmingly because it was supported by Rep. George Miller. The California Democrat and environmental stalwart dropped his opposition after Rep. Don Young (R-AK) and Rep. Helen Chenowith (R-ID) readily conceded a provision that logging would abide by all environmental laws. California Democrats Barbara Boxer and Diane Feinstein are carrying the QLG banner on the Senate side.. Environmentalists suspect a set-up for QLG-type bills from Alaska and Idaho which environment-friendly Democrats could hardly oppose after supporting one in California.

"This disease is spreading already," Native Forest Council Executive Director Tim Hermach said. "Rep. DeFazio is saying that he wants a similar bill for the Northwest; and the same thing is happening in the Southwest. We are in trouble. Big trouble. This thing could make the Salvage Rider look like a Sunday picnic."

House Agriculture Chair Bob Smith, a "forest health logging" enthusiast, appeared to confirm such fears when he announced he would push for national logging reform based on the QLG regional planning approach.

Fearful of such prospects, around 20 national and regional environmental groups rallied in opposition to the bill.

"We've got to taint future efforts like this," said Western Ancient Forest Campaign Executive Director Steve Holmer.

Common among QLG opponents were references to well-intentioned Bambi consorting with ravenous Godzilla, and naive chickens inviting sharp, high-powered foxes into the coop.

"The basic dishonesty in the approach is the power relationships," Pace said -- It's hostage syndrome at work.

"I cannot help but see this as the new international economy trying to coopt the forest movement," Pace said. "Coercive harmony is a real phenomenon. It's peer pressure. You're surrounded by public land. People are courting you that used to attack you as a devil at the same time wise users are pounding on you. It's almost like good cop-bad cop."

When the people who come courting are Sierra Pacific Industries, the biggest and strongest timber company in California, the temptation is even more powerful, Pace added.

"Sierra Pacific people been doing a hell of a job on strategy," Pace said. "What better way -- coopt your local activists?"

For the timber company, Pace said, the added logging under the bill. could give SPI has more control over central California timber market. "We raised the possibility of this bill being a subsidy that improves the competitive position of SPI."

Environmentalists have for the last couple of years been casting an increasingly skeptical eye on stakeholder groups such as QLG. Sierra Club Chair Michael McCloskey's November 1995 memo to the club's board, since published nationally, was a landmark.

"Industry thinks it's odds are better in these forums," McCloskey wrote. "It has ways to generate pressures on communities where it is strong, which it doesn't have at the national level...This re-distribution in power is designed to disempower our (national environmental) constituency, which is heavily urban."

After the QLG House vote, McCloskey said, "It does prove something that the advocates of collaborative processes have been denying --that they have any aim of displacing normal processes .When they run to Congress to impose a negotiated agreement on a national forest, they certainly are displacing an agency's process.

"All the nonlocal stakeholders are excluded from the process," he added. "If Quincy can do it so can people around the country. There's a precedent being set here. So we don't have national forests anymore, but just forests run in local dictates.

"Big business has a game-plan of pursuing this approach to get out of the clutches of the tough federal agencies," McCloskey said. "A lot of people on the left have been taken in because it is a touchy-feely approach that plays to those with romantic notions about localism and self-control. They forget they're disempowering most of the people who have a stake in the issue."

To such charges Mike Jackson laughs. "We haven't seen the Sierra Club around here since the Mammoth Lakes case of 1974. I've filed most of the forestry lawsuits around here."

Rather than putting up a false front of environmental unity, Jackson said, "I don't see the environmental movement as one thing or any problem of many voices in it. We can't fix the problems in my area by litigation. There has to be some agreement."

Jackson sees class and geographic prejudice at work in environmentalist opposition to QLG, urban professionals versus rural blue-collar folks, the same kind of dynamic that drove rural people "right into the clutches of right-wing hate mongers."

Lack of national environmental involvement in QLG is not for lack of an invitation, the attorney added.

"What do you do when they won't come? Tell your neighbors we can't meet because they're too busy having cocktail parties down in San Francisco. We begged. We pleaded. They wouldn't come when we told them our neighbors changed their minds. I don't think anyone is interested in how our neighbors changed."

Jackson paints a picture sharply at odds with QLG's critics, in which local environmentalists have won a fundamental political victory. Timber interests, he said, conceded to a plan drafted by local environmentalists in the late '80s and supported by some of the same groups who now attack it. Jackson cites issue after issue on which his former opponents have now acquiesced -- protection of all roadless areas, stream protection, no cutting of trees over 30 inches, watershed management elevated to equal importance with timber, no automatic salvage logging after fires.

The QLG plan limits the size of cuts to 2 acres at most, and takes 30 percent of the most sensitive of the 2.5 million acres off the timber base, including salmon habitat not yet protected by any recovery plan. The bill specifies all environmental rules, including those for recovery of the California spotted owl, will be followed.

"What Sierra Pacific had in mind when they came to my office I do not know. But the idea the environmentalists have been coopted does not make it on the facts," Jackson said. "What happens is that when you proactively work with you neighbors, the logic of taking sensitive lands off the base appeals to everyone in the room."

Community-based efforts such as QLG "mostly end up dominated by the facts and that never hurts the environmental cause," Jackson said. Meanwhile, while polls show over 70 percent of people support the environment, "the environmental movement turns them off." The healthiest elements, he said, are precisely community-based efforts such as QLG.

Freeman House, a founder of Northern California's Mattole Restoration Council, one of the oldest and most respected community-based ecological restoration efforts, commented, "I tend to see the national environmental reaction coming from having developed a power base and feeling threatened by these community groups.

"The community groups are engaged in community survival in place," House said. "Their goals, in spite of the strange bedfellows, tend to be bioregional in nature. It's only what we learn in these experiments that we're going to find out what we need to know and create a broad constituency for the bioregional agenda. It's certainly no more dangerous an experiment than the Forest Service has engaged in the last 50 years."

House has not read the bill but saw an earlier draft of the QLG plan.

"The potential here is for this national forest to work social and economic transformation in this community."

House believes that environmentalists may be reacting more to the "wise use" rhetoric of the bill's sponsor, Northern California Republican Congressman Wally Herger, than the bill itself.

"All the national groups ask is, `What did the environmentalists give?,'" Jackson said. "Since we can't figure out that we gave anything it makes it a little hard to do the list."

What about doubled logging levels on national forests already producing more than any other in California?

"I think that's good for the forest," Jackson said. "This is a whole different kind of logging. It took me a long time to come to that conclusion. I don't like the idea of saving the forest by logging it."

But human intervention in Northern California forests had a long history. Jackson noted that Native Americans for 10,000 years managed local forests by fire, which was why it was in a more open conditions when Europeans encountered it.

Roy Keene of the Public Forestry Foundation is reserving judgment on the QLG plan until he can get down to California to ground truth it. By no means opposed to the idea of logging for forest health, Keene plans timber operations for environmentally-sensitive landowners. He has also participated in the process that certified Collins Pine, which operates in the QLG plan area, as a sustainable wood producer. Knowing the forests there well, Keene says the plan needs to pass muster on several key points.

Though the plan protects big trees, Keene is concerned about medium-size pines "in a forest that is already pine-poor. If they're taking the next generation of young pines, they're taking the wrong trees." The real fire problem, he said, comes from thickets of true fir and incense cedar, trees 5-10 inches in diameter whose prime value is in the chip market. But, he added, chip prices are down now, whereas pines 20 inches and over are highly valuable for veneer.

Consulting in collaborative efforts nearby Quincy, "I asked `Why take the pine?.' They had no answer except the money."

Jackson acknowledged, "The companies are able to make a living by logging smaller material," adding that is why they were ready to accept environmental rules.

Keene is skeptical about trying to make restoration efforts in such heavily hammered forests a paying proposition.

"Chainsaws do have a part, but I would debate whether chokers have a part. I would say those forests are long overdue for some investment, rather than making the forest pay for itself."

And he is concerned about soil compaction and erosion. "We tend to focus on what's above the ground. We don't talk about the soil, which is the life of the forest. Now they're going to make a third or fourth entry. Removing those trees without damaging the soil, that's a trick I'll have to see."

"But my main problem is scale," Keene said. "They could have at least built some models. This is too large, too much, too quick."

The size of the project is the major objection cited by all of the QLG bill's critics. The bill mandates 50-70,000 acres of logging each year for five, after which the project will be reviewed.

Pace said both regional and national environmentalists offered support for a smaller test.

"We wanted them to have their pilot project. They went out of the way pilot projects are done, which is through the appropriation process. The bill locks it in. That's where they lost the support of the grassroots forest activists in California."

Many of the concepts in the QLG bill remain untested, Pace said. He is concerned that thinning out forests could, in fact, create more fire dangers by encouraging brush growth. At any rate, so-called fuel breaks will have to be maintained on a regular schedule, and the Forest Service does not have the budget, he said. Pace, too, is concerned about soil erosion and watershed impacts.

"Felice knows more forest science than just about anyone in the environmental. movement, which is why I hope to persuade him," Jackson said. He believes science backs up the plan.

"We want floodlights on this problem because we've seen something in the science. The owl science and fire science both call for this prescription. Thinning is best for old-growth dependent species and the big trees. We need to get at it on a landscape level. If it doesn't work we will prove you can't do ecological forestry and alter fire behavior through logging."

As to a smaller project, Jackson said the Forest Service has already been testing fuel break logging. Plumas National Forest spokesperson Lee Anne Taylor confirmed that 19,000 acres in the QLG plan area have been logged as fuel breaks in recent years.

Legislation is necessary, Jackson said, "because the Forest Service is getting so many mixed messages. The legislation focuses them, gives them a clear mandate."

Indeed, if the bill passes as expected, the direction to the Forest Service will be spelled out. Less clear are whether the plan will reduce fire dangers, and whether collaboratives like the Quincy Library Group are a clever scheme to coopt grassroots environmentalists or a new community-based model meshing ecology and economy. Over coming years, the results on the ground around Quincy are likely to provide some answers.


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