Community efforts

  • 30/03/1998

Community efforts In an effort to resolve the gridlock and restore the jobs of those employed in the timber industry, Bill Coates, supervisor at Plumas county whose political career has been supported by the timber industry, called a meeting between Tom Nelson, a forester in the lumber industry, and environmentalist Jackson in the winter of 1992. The industry wanted to resolve the gridlock in order to ensure certainty of timber harvest. By identifying wild fires caused by over-stocking - and not logging - as the largest threat to wildlife, environmentalists were convinced that they needed the industry to reduce fuel and to restore forest health. Logging of old growth trees larger than 76 cm in diameter was restricted to ensure adequate habitat for the Spotted Owl. The reduction of fuel (through prescribed burning and mechanical treatments) to protect the Spotted Owl from the danger of catastrophic fires was also recommended.

Nelson and Jackson decided to meet at the local library in the hope that the adherence to silence at the library would force the two rivals to be civil to each other. Also, the public library provided a neutral meeting ground. To their surprise they found that their causes had some common ground, forest health and community stability; and two common enemies, the fs and forest fires.

Apart from the loss in timber jobs, the gridlock was causing a loss of revenue to the counties and local schools. The nfma stipulates that one-fourth of the revenue from each forest's timber, grazing, mining, recreation and other uses is to be returned to counties where the forest is located. California law requires that these payments be divided evenly between county roads and schools. From 1989 to 1993, payments made to counties under the 25 per cent fund declined by 56 per cent in Lassen county, 52 per cent in Plumas county, and 49 per cent in Sierra county. This is a rather significant decline considering that in 1989, the given 25 per cent fund amounted to 21.5 per cent of the total school budget in Plumas county, 25.3 per cent in Sierra county, and 8.32 per cent in Lassen county. On January 13, 1994, the Sacramento Bee, a leading newspaper in California, carried a story about the plight of schools in Plumas county, saying that the Plumas Unified School District was considering a proposal to shut down the Greenville High School due to a budgetary crisis. Neither environmentalists nor industrialists wanted this.

Furthermore, they agreed that forests were being mismanaged by the fs. About 76 per cent of the land in Plumas county, 59 per cent in Sierra county and about 20 per cent in Lassen county is managed by fs. According to Mike Yost, professor of natural resources at the Feather River Comm-unity, the fs has been extracting unsustainable levels of timber from the forests as poor planning of the sample inventory has caused the fs to overestimate the timber inventory by 40 per cent. This discrepancy was discovered in a meeting of forest rangers, where instead of correcting the mistake, some effort was made to hide it. However, the ranger's report got leaked to the Friends of Plumas Wilderness (fpw), an environmental organisation.

The fs had no incentive to reduce harvest levels with its budget tied to the level of timber harvest and the pressure of the principle of sustained yield forestry, which punishes deviations from the promised level of harvest. Such management practices meant that the fs would have to order liquidation of old growth forests and eventually reduce timber harvests from public lands. Environmentalists wanted to prevent the former, and the industry the latter.

The deliberations between Jackson and Nelson resulted in the formulation of a strategy for better forest management, which the group called the Community Stability Proposal (csp). This was based on an earlier proposal put together by the fpw to improve forest management. In July 1993, the csp was presented to the people of Quincy at the townhall. From this townhall meeting grew the Quincy Library Group (qlg). The qlg has a steering committee of 30 members, but all the meetings are open to the public. The proposal set out a five-year forest management strategy for over 607,500 ha (68 per cent of the total) on the Lassen and Plumas national forests and the Sierraville ranger district of the Tahoe national forests. The proposal had two aims: (i) restoring the forests to an all-age, multi-storey, fire resistant forest approximating the pre-settlement conditions; and (ii) ensuring an adequate and stable supply of timber to the local community dependent on timber harvests. The proposal was based on four management principles.

Firstly, management decisions regarding environmentally sensitive areas (roadless areas, scenic river corridors, California Spotted Owl pair activity centres and riparian areas) were to be deferred for the next five years. Secondly, for the remaining forest lands, single-tree and group selection were to be used as primary harvest treatments (instead of clearfelling), and aggressive fuel management was to be carried out to reduce the risk of fires.

Thirdly, a watershed restoration programme was to be implemented to ensure the health of fisheries and the Feather river watershed. And finally, a sustainable yield unit, made possible by the Sustained-Yield Forest Management Act of 1944, was to be established for a period of five years, which would result in at least 75 per cent of the logs being harvested and milled by companies within the qlg area. This element of the proposal was to ensure that timber jobs would remain in Plumas county and would help get the economy in shape again.

Harnessing political support
The qlg realised that in order to implement the much-needed fuel reduction strategy, money would have to be sanctioned from Washington, dc. On the one hand, the fire risk reduction strategy was not economically viable as it called for the removal of small logs with little economic value. On the other hand, budgetary restrictions prevented the fs from diverting money from other activities to fuel reduction.

In February 1994, 43 qlg members travelled to Washington, dc to lobby Congress for resources for the fuel reduction strategy. In the autumn of 1994, Congress sanctioned us $1,000,000 to the local fs to implement the fuel reduction strategy recommended by the qlg. However, the proposal for setting up a sustainable yield unit was rejected.

After the money was sanctioned, the qlg sent a letter to the fs with its suggestions for how the money should be spent. The local fs , however, was not legally bound to listen to the qlg , and not surprisingly, the fs paid little attention to the qlg's recommendations.While the group wanted us $100,000 to be spent on fuel break planning (which could later be incorporated into the land management plan and the largest possible area to be treated for fire hazard reduction), the fs decided to focus on producing results and harvesting the largest volume of timber. Furthermore, another qlg member, Linda Bloom, found that the fs had not improved its management practices.

Disappointed with the behaviour of the fs , the group decided to go all out. They decided to not just see the fuel reduction strategy implemented but to lobby Congress for changes in the forest management policy. This, they knew, would affect the long-term forest management plan and the allocation of the entire forest service budget of us $30-40 million. Nelson, Jackson, Bloom and a member of the fs met the secretary to the department of agriculture in Sacramento. The secretary was moved by the fact that two arch rivals, Jackson and Nelson, were now in the same room. In 1996, the secretary of agriculture agreed to provide an additional us $ 4,700,000 to the local fs . This, along with the us $ 15,300,000 from the then budget added up to the us $20 million that the fs had demanded to implement the qlg plan. Although the secretary had indicated that the entire us $20 million were to be spent on the qlg plan, the fs claimed that only us $4.7 million were for the community plan.

Thereafter, the qlg wrote up the Quincy Library Bill (qlb) and took it to Washington, dc in March 1997. The bill was trashed by environmentalists, who felt that it gave precedence to local interests over national interests. But in July 1997, the House of Representatives and the Senate passed two bills in support of the qlb. These bills directed the secretary of agriculture to conduct a pilot project on designated lands within Plumas, Lassen and Sierra national forests to demonstrate the effectiveness of resource management activities proposed by the qlg. Furthermore, the secretary was asked to amend current land and resource management plans for these national forests to consider the incorporation of the new management activities.

Response of the forest service
By and large, there is no trust lost between the qlg and members of the fs. The qlg holds the fs responsible for mismanagement of forests in the past and feels that the fs has not extended support for the csp . The fs , on the other hand, sees the community effort as a threat to its authority and control over forest management. According to Jackson, who refers to the fs as "the United States Lip Service", the fs does not want to be held accountable to the public, and therefore does not want the pilot project to work. Consequently, instead of spending the us $1,000,000 sanctioned by Congress to reduce fire risk, the fs has used it for other purposes.

Lynn Sprague, chief of the usfs in California and the Pacific Southwest, says that the qlg does not want to work with the fs to improve forest management but to tell the fs how to do its job. Why else, he asks, would qlg members bypass the local fs and go directly to Congress to harness support for their csp. Larry Ruth, professor at University of California at Berkeley, feels that the qlg had no choice left but to go to Congress because of the limitations placed on outside advisory groups by the Federal Advisory Committee Act (faca). Under faca , advisory groups have no legal standing and the fs is not bound to listen to the recommendations of groups like the qlg.

National environmental groups, like the Sierra Club, are suspicious of the qlg. They feel the local environmentalists have been co-opted by the timber industry, and the community effort is a new way to obtain timber from public forests.

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