San Francisco Chronicle

June 15, 1997

EDITORIAL -- Who Should Determine The Fate of a Forest?


THE TIMBER WARS of the west are defined by their polarizing icons. The spotted owl. Charles Hurwitz. The marbled murrelet. James Watt. Earth First!

Now comes the Quincy Library Group, which is fast gaining legendary status on Capitol Hill as a rare symbol of civility and collaboration.

In fact, some members of Congress are so impressed by the warm-and-fuzzy notion of loggers, environmentalists and politicians working together that they are ready to let this group dictate policy for 2.5 million acres of federal forest in the northern Sierra.

This scheme needs a closer look, however.

It started in late 1992, when a Plumas County supervisor, a local environmental attorney and a Sierra Pacific Industries forester got together to see whether they could resolve their differences.

They met in the only place in Quincy where they were guaranteed not to scream at each other -- the public library.

``After 15 years of fighting . . . the idea that we would sit in one room and recognize each other's right to exist was a new one,'' said Michael Jackson, the environmental attorney in the group.

More locals soon joined in. They kept the shouting down and within months, remarkably, a compromise took shape. They decided that their goals were not incompatible after all. They found a way to have it all -- keep the loggers and mill workers busy, lower the risk of catastrophic wildfires and protect environmentally delicate areas.

Their plan involves an ambitious five-year experiment -- encompassing all of Lassen and Plumas national forests, and part of Tahoe National Forest. It calls for the U.S. Forest Service to sanction at least 40,000 acres of logging a year as part of a fire-prevention program and to sell another 10,000 acres of timber of various ages.

Since the Forest Service had neither the money nor the inclination to adopt such an aggressive timber-harvesting plan, the group turned to Representative Wally Herger, R- Chico. His legislation (HR 858) would force the USFS to carry out the proposal.

One of the biggest concerns about the plan is that it relies on an untested theory -- that a system of logger-cleared ``fuel breaks'' in the forest will help contain major fires.

Don Erman, a professor at the University of California at Davis who recently headed up a science team as part of a congressionally ordered overview of the Sierra Nevada ecosystem, raised significant questions about a plan that might ``look good on paper.'' Will the logging be accompanied by equal attention to the non-lucrative aspects of the fire- prevention operation -- such as taking out brush and debris? And will the cleared-out areas become home to even more flammable species of trees and brush?

``What's this going to look like when they're finished?'' asked Erman, suggesting the idea should be tested on a smaller scale. ``Is this going to just be a linear logging show under the guise of protecting the forest?''

There are plenty of reasons to believe that the Herger bill, recently passed by the House Resources Committee, tilts strongly toward the timber industry's interest. For example, the bill allows the Forest Service to shift money from other programs (wildlife protection, recreation, grazing) to carry out this experimental logging program. It leapfrogs some federal environmental laws and pre- empts other forest management plans for the next five years, including those that might take a more comprehensive or conservation- minded approach to the Sierra.

The bias of the Herger bill is also underscored by what it did not include.

Early on, the Quincy group embraced a ``working circle'' concept. They agreed that trees cut in the nearby woods would have to be milled in Quincy

--not shipped off to Redding or even a foreign country. That requirement was later dropped at Sierra Pacific's insistence.

Moreover, though the bill is loaded with timber-harvesting mandates, it provides scant extra environmental protection in return. ``This is not the Quincy Library Group . . . this is the hijacking of the Quincy Library Group,'' said Representative George Miller, D-Calif., who unsuccessfully tried to tighten the bill's ecological safeguards.

``It's as if the Library Group plan is cast in stone,'' said Louis Blumberg of the Wilderness Society. ``They talk about this as a collaborative process, but they don't want to collaborate with anyone else.''

Jackson and other participants bristle at the suggestion they were co-opted or rolled by the industry and its allies in Congress. He especially takes issue with the criticism from national environmental groups that too much old growth would be left unprotected.

``We live here; we've walked most of the old-growth areas,'' he said. ``We can see the trees. We're not looking from outer space.''

From an airplane, one of the most striking features of the forest around Quincy is the extent to which the topography is defined by watersheds. Canyons, creeks, lakes -- life follows the flow. Ecosystems far from this proposed experiment with nature will be profoundly affected by its outcome.

The scars of logging and wildfire are plainly evident. The patches of pale greenery, the orderly rows of replanted trees and the snaking paths of reddish-brown logging roads show how timber companies have mowed the areas of least resistance. The old growth remains mostly on the steepest slopes.

Which is the greater threat to this public treasure -- fire or excessive new logging?

Should those who were not at the Quincy Library in 1993 be excluded from this important decision, including biologists with updated studies? And who speaks for the future generations of Americans and all the wildlife that would have to live with the results?

Congress should be respectful of all the hard work and expertise provided by the Quincy Library Group, people who value and know that beautiful stretch of the Sierra. They deserve a voice in the process -- but not the only one that counts, as HR 858 proposes.