Agriculture chief upholds management plan for 11.5 million acres of Sierra

By Jim Wasserman, Associated Press Writer
Friday December 28, 2001

SACRAMENTO – The Bush administration announced support Thursday for a Clinton-era management plan that gives a new environmental tilt to managing 11.5 million acres of national forests in the Sierra Nevada. 

U.S. Agriculture Under Secretary Mark Rey, who oversees the U.S. Forest Service, upheld a decision last month that rejected appeals by loggers, ski resorts and off-road groups hoping to kill the plan. 

Rey’s action formally upheld a plan that took the Forest Service nine years and $12 million to craft, beginning in 1992 as an effort to protect to endangered spotted owl. 

“The plan is a final agency decisions, which is now being implemented,” Rey said to a room lined with logging officials and environmentalists. 

The news immediately cheered environmentalists and disappointed resource groups hoping a Republican Bush appointee and former timber lobbyist would throw out the plan for 11 national forests in California and Nevada. Rey called it his decision alone, despite advice within the Bush administration. 

Environmentalists contended the plan was legally “airtight,” giving Rey no option but to uphold it. But Rey disputed that claim. 

The management vision, formally called the Sierra Nevada Framework, shifts the Forest Service’s emphasis from logging old-growth forests to offering them greater protection. It also adds safeguards for endangered species and bans logging on most trees larger than 20 inches in diameter. Environmentalists said the management plan should limit logging in a 460-mile stretch of mountain terrain to levels one-tenth those reached during the Reagan administration in the 1980s. 

California Forestry Association President David Bischel called Rey’s ruling the “worst decision they could have made” and one that will “add to the risk of catastrophic wildfire.” 

He said forestry groups may eventually take their cases to court. 

Rey said he made his decision with “considerable optimism,” but also “trepidation” about seeing the plan challenged in court. 

“I’m pessimistic that the court system is the best place to decide these things,” he said. 

Rey asked both sides to hold off legal action until seeing results of a few revisions to be announced within days by Pacific Southwest Forester Jack Blackwell. Forest Service officials said they are now writing an “action plan” aiming to better prevent destructive wildfires that frequently rage in the nation’s longest unbroken mountain range. Some of revisions incorporate points made by plan opponents, they said. 

Environmentalists said they fear those might be a backdoor way to accomplish more logging. They, too, promised to sue if that happens. 

But spokesmen for environmental organizations had mostly praise for Rey’s decision not to throw out the Clinton-era management plan. 

“Today the sun is shining on California’s Range of Light,” said Jay Watson, regional director the Wilderness Society, borrowing 19th Century conservationist John Muir’s description of the mountain range. 

Craig Thomas, spokesman for the Sierra Nevada Forest Protection Campaign, lauded the decision and the Forest Service, saying, “I think California is leading the way in terms of this agency bringing its credibility back.” 

Bob Roberts, director of California Snow, a group of Sierra Nevada ski resorts, said Rey should have scrapped the plan. 

Ski resorts won’t be able to add new lifts if they can’t remove trees larger than 20 inches in diameter, Roberts said, which makes him “feel recreations has been a casualty of the process.”