Lockyer Sues Over U.S. Timber Plan
Feb. 2--State Attorney General Bill Lockyer sued the U.S. Forest Service on Tuesday in a bid to stop it from scrapping a logging plan for the Sierra Nevada and replacing it with one that he said is designed to maximize logging and profits from 11.5 million acres of California forests.
The suit, filed in U.S. District Court in Sacramento, seeks to stop the Forest Service from revamping the landmark 2001 "framework" plan that was designed to balance logging and conservation needs in 11 national forests in the Sierra.
"The Bush administration just tossed that plan overboard," Lockyer said in a telephone conference call with reporters. "It jettisoned the plan, violating a number of environmental and administrative procedure laws."
That plan was the result of 10 years of study and negotiation, but the Forest Service approved a revised plan late last year that would triple logging in forests, a plan that Lockyer's suit said "reflects the agency's new willingness to risk long-term, irretrievable losses in exchange for short-term economic gains."
A Forest Service spokesman strongly denied those claims, noting that the agency already has been sued by timber interests over the revised plan and adding that changes had to be made to prevent catastrophic wildfires.
"We're disappointed that anybody would sue us over this," spokesman Matt Mathes said. "We must get going on reducing fire dangers in the Sierra Nevada mountain range before we lose communities and wildlife habitat."
Lockyer, a potential candidate for the Democratic gubernatorial nomination in 2006, has cast the Forest Service's changes in the framework as a political move that began when President Clinton was succeeded by President Bush.
The Forest Service adopted the plan Jan. 12, 2001, but by Dec. 31, 2001, officials were discussing radical changes in it, the lawsuit states.
"On the change of administration, the Forest Service's apparent commitment to the 2001 framework was short-lived," the suit says.
The suit names the Forest Service; its parent agency, the U.S. Department of Agriculture; and various officials involved in the plan, including Regional Forester Jack Blackwell. A coalition of environmental groups that includes the Sierra Nevada Forest Protection Campaign, the Sierra Club and the Natural Resources Defense Council filed a similar suit Monday.
Environmentalists contend that the changes would allow a tripling of the amount of logging that can be conducted within the 11 national forests, from 150 million board feet annually to 450 million, and that the new plan allows much older trees to be harvested to increase profits.
The 2001 plan allowed felling of trees no more than 20 inches in diameter, and limited cutting in old-growth areas -- about 4 million of the 11.5 million acres in the forests -- to trees 12 inches in diameter. Now, 30-inch trees can be cut throughout the forests.
Although size and age vary greatly, a 30-inch tree could be 80 to 100 years old.
Opponents of the new plan also contend that the changes increase the likelihood of forest fires endangering area communities because they give logging firms incentives to cut down larger, older trees far from existing towns.
"They have a program to log big trees in the back country to prevent fires in forest communities, when all of the science, including their own, says they should be clearing brush in the communities themselves," said Carl Zichella, regional staff director for the Sierra Club in Sacramento. "In fact, their policy is a prescription for more fire, not less."
But Mathes disputed that, saying the changes were driven by a desire to reduce fire danger and that old-growth groves are not being targeted.
"The vast majority of trees that will be cut will be less than 20 inches in diameter," he said. "We're only going to thin trees considered small-or medium-size.
"The large, old-growth trees greater than 30 inches in diameter are off-limits to cutting. ... We don't want to cut old growth."
The Lockyer lawsuit also contends that the new plan does not take into account the need to protect sensitive species that may be affected by increased logging in some older areas, species such as the California spotted owl, the Yosemite toad and the willow flycatcher.
Under the original plan, 70 percent of the logging was to take place near communities to help in fire prevention, versus 50 percent in the new plan, said John Buckley, executive director of the Central Sierra Environmental Resources Center in Twain Harte.
The changes amount "to a gift to the timber industry," said Buckley, who worked for the Forest Service for 13 years.
Buckley added that some could argue the 2001 plan was too generous toward environmentalists and that there was room for a compromise that some groups might have accepted, such as increasing the size of trees to be harvested to 15 inches to 25 inches in diameter.
"There really was a middle-ground solution," Buckley said. "But the Clinton administration provided a very nice environmental gift, and then under the Bush administration the pendulum swung to the extreme.
"It's unfortunate that it takes a lawsuit to cause a long, drawn-out replanning effort to fix what they could have voluntarily done."
By Sam Stanton and Andy Furillo
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© 2005, The Sacramento Bee, Calif. Distributed by Knight Ridder/Tribune Business News.