A compromise in Sierra: Future timber debates should avoid Congress

(Published Oct. 17, 1997)

In 1993, a small group of Sierra environmentalists, loggers and local politicians opted for compromise rather than combat after years of fighting over how to manage the Plumas National Forest. They met at the Quincy library, where no one could shout. It didn't take long to reach agreement, largely along the lines of a moderate proposal by environmentalists back in the clear-cut 1980s. What has taken much longer is to get the plan enacted.

Frustrated by the slow pace of change, the Quincy Library Group has taken its case straight to Congress with a bill forcing the adoption of its logging plan. National environmental organizations that were once their friends suddenly became foes. They oppose Congress' enacting logging plans for specific forests. (The Sierra Club opposes any commercial logging in public forests.)

But the environmental establishment seems powerless to stop the Quincy Library Group. The legislation, with some improvements suggested by environmental groups, is sailing through Congress. Absent some unexpected turn of events, the Plumas, Lassen and part of the Tahoe national forests will soon embark on a five-year experiment. It will answer whether the Quincy strategy -- cutting small and medium trees to lessen the danger of fires and to re-establish once-dominant species such as pine -- makes sense.

The Quincy process makes some sense, given the alternative, which is to limp along with fluctuating harvests based more on politics and Forest Service orthodoxy than sustainable, environmentally sensitive forestry. But Clinton administration officials are wrong to hold up the Quincy Library Group as a model for how to resolve environmental conflicts. The group's legislative approach, while understandable, reflects the failure to find common ground without congressional meddling. The U.S. Forest Service, not Congress, should guide us toward predictable harvests for the timber industry while satisfying environmental concerns by protecting streams, roadless areas, threatened species and old-growth timber. Fundamental reform would be one that motivated the Forest Service to do that.

The Quincy plan has a reasonable balance. About a fourth of the forest is off-limits to logging, including all expanses without roads. So are all trees 30 inches in diameter or greater. The acres harvested in these forests, now about 70,000 annually, will remain the same. But the volume of harvested timber will increase as loggers establish fire protection zones by removing an artificially dense buildup of smaller trees.

While the Quincy plan deserves a chance, we don't need more congressional solutions like this one. This group came along at an important time in history to kick start a much-needed rethinking on sustainable logging. Ultimately, the U.S. Forest Service, on the sidelines in Quincy, should be the key player in channeling the energy of local residents to help make peace in rural communities while maintaining consistent national logging policies. In the forests, the political middle should not be such a lonely place.