Used by Permission of the Sacramento Bee

Fallout from a logging consensus in the Sierra
Published on 11/09/1997, Page FO1 , Article 3 of 9 found, 2125 words.


In 1995, Michael Jackson, a long-time environmental activist and Sierra Club member, grew so tired of fighting the timber industry that he voted in a club election to end all commercial logging in national forests.

Yet at the same time he was joining Sierra Club members to push the organization in a more radical direction, Jackson, as a community leader and citizen, was busy seeking common ground between environmentalists and the loggers. In an effort that has since gained national attention, he had been negotiating with the timber industry in the Sierra community of Quincy to come up with a mutually acceptable logging method.

Jackson and his fellow consensus builders, known as the Quincy Library Group, have been courting a friendly Congress to launch a dramatically new logging strategy for the northern Sierra. The U.S. Forest Service will test on a massive scale -- 70,000 acres a year of the Plumas, Lassen and Tahoe national forests over the next five years -- a way of logging that leaves the big trees still standing.

It is a watershed moment in the modern political history of this mountain range. Yet the occasion is bittersweet for Jackson, a longtime Quincy attorney.

Jackson has been bruised by a head-on collision between rural and urban environmentalists, a conflict he, in small part, helped create. He says he thinks that because activists like him told the Sierra Club to oppose commercial logging in national forests, the club now fights his Quincy Library Group.

"The reason the environmentalists are so upset is that we think this will have environmental benefit," said Jackson. "They don't want to admit that ever. It doesn't fit their zero-logging approach."

The bitterness over the Quincy Library Group exposes conflicts in resource politics that transcend the Sierra.

For environmental groups, the question is how to take bold policy stands on issues like logging while still leaving room, if that is the desire, for compromise.

And for all the national organizations that have historically dominated the Washington debate over logging policy, the question is whether local consensus-building efforts in rural communities erode their traditional influence over policy.

The Quincy Group's success has exposed what happens when a town ready for change takes on the national environmental groups. Longing for economic stability, locals were eager to find common ground even if it meant abandoning previously entrenched views.

"It is easy to take the moral high ground when you don't live in these communities," said Tom Nelson, a forester with Sierra Pacific Industries, the biggest logger in the region, who negotiated with the Quincy environmentalists. "It is tougher when you have to face these people every day."

After three fruitless years of trying to get the Forest Service to amend its Plumas management plans to conform with its consensus plan, the Quincy Group this year tested Congress' interest. Congress turned out to be more interested in Quincy than many in Quincy were ready to believe. The Quincy plan gave legislators the rarest of opportunities: a bill with the aura of environmental correctness that still tells the U.S. Forest Service where to cut trees, and how many.

The Quincy legislation would permit an intensive logging technique on roughly the same amount of acreage that is presently harvested. Most of the logging on 70,000 acres would involve the clearing of brush and trees, except for the oldest, for the purpose of promoting a fire-resistant forest. Anywhere from 10,000 to 30,000 acres would be logged with miniature clear-cuts around the largest trees to create, after replanting, a forest with trees of varying ages. "I certainly didn't anticipate the legislation," said Wayne Thornton, who was supervisor of the Plumas National Forest when the group was formed. "Nobody really knew how far a group of citizens like this could go."

For Quincy environmentalists, the national limelight of 1997 is a long way from the dark days of 1988, when the Forest Service unveiled its long-term plan for the Plumas. Loggers over many years had cut more trees in this 1.2-million-acre stretch of Sierra than in the range's nine other national forests. The 1988 plan would have extended the cut, and even increased it, for years to come.

The service planned to emphasize clear-cuts (its less offensive term at the time, "even-age management") for 185 million to 265 million board feet of green timber harvests every year. In comparison, the Plumas this year plans to offer for sale only 25 million board-feet of timber, both green and dying from fire and insect infestation.

A coalition of environmentalists in 1986 had proposed an alternate plan which emphasized the thinning of dense understories of timber and small clear-cuts around larger trees. Logging would be prohibited in roadless areas, old-growth stands and near rivers and streams.

In the go-go years of the clear-cut 1980s, the plan was downright radical to many in the timber industry and Forest Service. And it was quickly dismissed.

The lack of interest from the Forest Service left activists like Linda Blum no alternative but to try to stop logging by filing administrative appeals of specific sales. That meant driving deep into the forest to review every logging site and write lengthy documents. The technique typically delayed logging but did not stop it. In recent years activists had no legal right to appeal the logging they hated most, sales of dead timber in roadless areas that had been scorched by fire.

"As a grass-roots activist, I couldn't keep it up," said Blum, a self-employed environmental consultant who has lived in Quincy for five years. "It wasn't sustainable activism."

IN 1992, the tide turned. There was the election of Bill Clinton and new leadership at the Forest Service that sought a reduction in timber sales. Looming even larger was mounting concern among wildlife biologists that California Spotted Owls were threatened by the loss of old-growth timber stands.

Suddenly the cut was down. Way down.

"We were literally crashing the economy of this area," said Thornton.

One morning late in 1992, Jackson's phone rang at his law office in Quincy. On the other end of the line was the enemy, long-time logging advocate and Plumas Supervisor Bill Coates. To Jackson's surprise, Coates had a deal in mind. That long-shelved 1986 logging strategy by the environmentalists suddenly didn't look so bad. It was time to talk.

And talk they did. The place -- Quincy's library, a public setting that demanded a low-decibel tone to conversation. At the core of discussions were Coates, Jackson, and Nelson of Sierra Pacific.

"Every time I looked at them, I saw almost shadows looming behind them of larger constituencies," said Thornton of the Forest Service, who attended some of the meetings. The groups they represented "weren't sure that these individuals were doing what these larger constituencies wanted."

For months it was unclear whether the negotiators could reach any agreement. At one point, Thornton got too exasperated to stay in the library. "I stomped off down the street with new shoes," he said. "I got blisters."

But on July 10, 1993, all sides agreed on a logging strategy to present to Quincy. About 150 locals came to a town hall meeting. There was a show of hands. Only four were raised in opposition. For the moment, there was peace in the Plumas.

In hindsight local environmental activist John Preschutti said everyone was naive about the timetable that loomed ahead. At most, Preschutti had thought it would take the Forest Service two years to come up with a new, formal logging plan that took into account the old-growth needs of the owls. The Quincy Library Group's plan was just for the interim.

At the time, he thought "how much truly can (loggers) do in two years?" he said.

The more that national groups like the Sierra Club looked at the plan, the more they didn't like it. "We were working throughout the whole time to reduce the cut," said Barbara Boyle, regional director for the Sierra Club. "Clearly there was over-cutting in the 1980s."

The Forest Service, meanwhile, was proceeding at a slow pace on settling how to simultaneously log and save the owls. More than four years after the Quincy discussions were launched, no final plan existed.

"The Forest Service was not responsive initially on the ground to the concerns of the community," said Jim Lyons, the undersecretary of the U.S. Department of Food and Agriculture who oversees forestry issues. "I think it could have been more responsive to putting the [Quincy] strategy in place or doing something akin to it."

Meanwhile, the local and national environmental groups weren't tying up logging by appealing sales. "Because we were not appealing, because the Quincy people weren't appealing, there's been very little crisis," said Jay Watson, regional director of the Wilderness Society.

Maybe not from his perspective. But back in Quincy, life "wasn't standing still," said Blum, the Quincy environmental consultant. A devastating fire in 1994 near Loyalton had raised local awareness of fire's threat not just to timber as a resource but also to timber's environmental role. The lack of a plan and the growing fire danger put everyone's interests at risk. "It wasn't loggers versus owls that was the unresolved issue," she said. "It was owls versus fire."

Unwilling to wait any longer for change, the group in 1996 approached its local congressman, Republican Wally Herger. Well aware of the group, he quickly converted its plan into a piece of legislation.

Yet when Blum saw what Herger submitted to Congress, she hardly recognized it. "I was horrified," she said. "It had all this Republican rhetoric. It was just pro-timber industry rhetoric."

The Quincy Group, said Watson of the Wilderness Society, was naive about the ways of Congress. "They expected not a single change to be made," he said. "The legislative process is the ultimate arena of compromise. Obviously changes were going to be made."

The subsequent changes have largely been to the liking of environmental groups, amending Herger's bill to reflect more of the balance of the original Quincy plan. Yet the very precedent of a local group's ramming its agreement through Congress has triggered a controversy that won't be as easily smoothed.

The name-calling within the environmental community has been particularly fierce. Jackson bristled when he read a full-page ad in the Sept. 24 New York Times that blasted the Quincy group, including him, as "industry-picked."

The national environmental groups "don't want the precedent of a local community talking to each other," said Jackson. "It is a matter of power and control."

Boyle of the Sierra Club denies that. "I think everyone has a role to play," she said. "These are federal lands. They have greater purposes than contributing to the local economy."

"Just because a group of local people can come to agreement doesn't mean that it is good public policy," says Watson of the Wilderness Society, which doesn't have a zero-logging policy but still opposes the Quincy plan.

Not everyone in Quincy is behind this compromise, particularly environmentalists like Preschutti who want to see an eventual halt to all logging in the forests.

Congress meanwhile has had a lovefest over Quincy. In the House of Representatives, only one member (a Texan who doesn't like the federal government owning land) voted against Herger's bill. California Senators Barbara Boxer and Dianne Feinstein like the Quincy plan so much that they are co-authoring their house's version of the measure.

"It is rewarding that a group of local citizens can take their ideas to a local representative and take it through the whole process," said Nelson of Sierra Pacific. "It is how democracy is supposed to work. That is what I learned in school."

The northern Sierra heads toward an uncertain future.

A scenario of peace and consensus-building goes something like this: The Forest Service embraces the new Quincy logging strategy over the next five years, the timespan of the bill. It honors concerns by national environmental groups, such as staying out of old-growth stands. And it takes a more open approach in its own brainstorming process, now under way, to craft a new long-term logging plan for the Plumas.

"Clearly we need to do a better job of changing the planning process to be more user-friendly and encourage more community input," said Lyons, the Agriculture undersecretary.

Yet a scenario of continuing conflict is equally plausible: The Quincy plan could remain shelved if Congress fails to appropriate any of the millions in additional dollars needed to implement it. And environmental groups could tie up the plan in court by challenging it. "If there's any kind of opening for that, it would be done," said Preschutti.

Whether the Quincy plan will bring a more peaceful consensus future to forest policy in the Sierra or break down in renewed conflict, nobody yet knows. But now there is at least a vision of consensus. Without the Quincy Library Group, there would have been none.