After four years of scrutiny, debate, appeals and changes, the U.S. Forest Service has affirmed the Sierra Nevada Forest Plan, but not everyone is happy with the document.
As outlined by Forest Service officials, the plan is designed to reduce the number of fires in the 11.5 million acres of forest land by more than 30 percent over the next 50 years.
Around communities in what’s called the wildland interface, fuels will be reduced on about 700,000 acres over the next 20 years.
First initiated in 2000 by the Clinton Administration, the Sierra Nevada Forest Plan Framework went through significant changes under the Bush administration.
Since then it has been the topic of numerous public hearings and reports.
Even though Forest Service Chief Dale Bosworth affirmed the amended plan last week, its provisions have been in effect since January after Bosworth reviewed a supplemental impact statement and signed a record of decision.
Locally, Stanislaus National Forest Planner John Maschi said they are already planning a number of projects to reduce fuel build-up around communities along Highways 4, 108 and 120.
The plan has the potential to double logging in the Sierra and that’s what has some environmental groups concerned.
John Buckley, with the Central Sierra Environmental Resource Center, said the amended, affirmed plan could triple logging in the Sierra Nevada.
While he and Maschi both emphasized that logging is predicated more on the Forest Service’s budget from congress than on policy, Buckley still doesn’t like the potential impact.
“It does mean over the next decade that logging will go into areas that previously were off limits and would have benefited wildlife species,” Buckley said.
One of the more controversial stipulations of the plan will allow logging of trees up to 30 inches in diameter, something that had been opposed by many environmental groups.
Supporters of the plan say it’s necessary to let timber companies harvest some of the larger trees in exchange for clearing out the smaller, unusable trees to reduce fire hazards.
Buckley said that’s because the amended plan permits logging deeper into the forest where the larger trees are needed to offset the higher costs.
More attention should be given to the interface areas because smaller trees n those 16 to 24 inches in diameter n can be economically viable to harvest because they are easier to reach, Buckley said.
Maschi said the Forest Service has a responsibility to manage the entire forest, not just the interface.
The defense zone around most communities is one-quarter to a half-mile, Maschi said.
When you have a 100,000 acre fire coming at the town “a half-mile just doesn’t do it,” he said.
The concept is to reduce the impact of fire on a large scale throughout the entire forest ecosystem, Maschi said.
He added that the primary focus is still on the interface, which receives 70 percent of the funds for fuel reduction.
Buckley said the amended plan also will allow grazing in areas where it was previously prohibited because of concerns for some sensitive wildlife species such as the mountain yellow-legged frog and Yosemite toad.
Maschi said the plan was never meant to affect ranchers who have permits to graze cattle in the forest during the summer, although the 2001 decision had a lot of unforeseen impacts on them.
“This new decision tries to correct that,” Maschi said.
The amended plan generated 6,200 letters of appeal.
“After reviewing the appeals, I have found that the (Forest Service) complied with all applicable laws, regulations and policies in amending the 2001 plan,” Bosworth said.
It appears the only way to oppose the plan at this time is by filing suit, Buckley said.
One of those cases may come from California Attorney General Bill Lockyer who said he will go to federal court to block the plan.
Lockyer says the plan violates federal environmental protection laws, and will endanger wildlife habitats and reduce water quality.
While any litigation works its way through the legal system, the new policies will remain in effect.
“It takes years for those kinds of court decisions to come forward,” Buckley said.