Union Tribune

November 7, 2003

Critics say forest thinning could raise fire risks


WASHINGTON As the White House publicly promotes a forest-thinning bill that it says will help prevent fires like those in Southern California, the U.S. Forest Service is quietly writing a timber-industry plan that would wipe out some of the bill's environmental protections and, critics say, raise fire risks in more than half the state's national forests.

The Forest Service in coming weeks is poised to approve the cutting down of large trees on 11.5 million acres of the Sierra Nevada. Forestry officials say that will thin fire-prone overgrowth in the Sierra backcountry. In exchange, they say, timber companies will have to thin overgrown areas closer to Sierra towns, a cost-saving plan that could free up tax money for forest-thinning elsewhere, including Southern California.

"If we do more work in the Sierra Nevada using this strategy where you sell a few more trees we might have more money to use in Southern California," said Dave Reider, spokesman for the U.S. Forest Service in California.

Critics fear the new plan would not only eliminate old-tree protections the White House has tentatively embraced in a Senate bill but would also remove shade and moisture from forest floors, making them drier, hotter and more susceptible to fire.

"You're talking about moist, cool, dark forests that are fire-resistant," said Jay Watson, wildland fire program director for The Wilderness Society. "They are pandering to the timber industry. I don't know of any other reason for this."

The Bush administration is expected to adopt the Forest Service plan by the end of December.

California has 19 national forests covering 20 million acres.

The Sierra Nevada's 11 federal forests account for 11.5 million acres.

The new Forest Service directive would change what is known as the Sierra Nevada Framework, a Clinton-era plan hailed by environmentalists as a model for balancing environmental and economic interests, but disliked by timber companies, many rural counties and ranchers with grazing permits in forests.

Under the new plan, timber companies could cut down trees up to 30 inches in diameter in the Sierra forests. Now, they can cut trees up to 12 inches diameter.

The proposal would double the amount of commercial logging in California's signature mountain range.

"I think the key words are 'up to 30 inches,' " Reider said. "Certainly that will not be the case in every case."

Forestry officials see the logging not only as a way to prevent fires in the backcountry but also as a means of helping their strapped department pay for forest thinning near populated areas.

For too long, they say, Forest Service money has been spent putting out fires rather than clearing the unnaturally thick brush and trees near people's homes, which can lead to large, uncontrolled fires such as the recent blazes that raged across San Diego County and elsewhere in Southern California.

In exchange for cutting down bigger trees under the new Forest Service plan, timber companies would have to clear brush and unmarketable trees closer to where people live.

"It turned out . . . we could not do the amount of fuel reduction we thought was necessary to protect and preserve the forest" with existing budgets, Reider said.

But critics see the new plan as a way for the White House to cater to the timber industry.

"Experts have shown that the bigger trees . . . have survived many fires in the past," said Susannah Churchill, a preservation advocate for Environment California, an arm of the California Public Interest Research Group. "Cutting them down is going to reduce some of the most fire-resistant forests out there."

Since the Southern California fires, Bush has publicly pushed what he calls the "Healthy Forests Initiative," a way to thin overgrown national forests and pay for it by letting timber companies cut down large, older trees.

When the Senate last week approved a forest-thinning bill with some protections for larger trees, the Bush administration said it was generally pleased with the plan, which must now be reconciled with a House version of the proposal.

But the president's Forest Service plan would wipe out old-tree protections when it comes to the Sierra Nevada's 11 federal forests.

The Forest Service plan does not need congressional approval and would override the Senate legislation, experts agreed.

"We have a serious concern in the Sierra Nevada in terms of fire and forest health," Reider said of the rationale for cutting down older Sierra trees. "We intend to do the best we can to address that problem."

Perhaps key to the debate will be California Gov.-elect Arnold Schwarzenegger, who has said he opposes changes to the Sierra Nevada Framework. It remains to be seen if he will try to persuade the White House to reverse course on the coming changes.