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The Quincy Library group.

POSTED:

No clearcutting on U.S. Forest Service land. No logging or grazing near streams. Timber processed at local mills. By mutual decree of loggers and environmentalists.

IF THE "POSTED" sign at right sounds like a scene from The Peaceable Kingdom, come to the Feather River watershed in northeastern California. A five-year experiment proposed for three national forests there could not only change the way the U.S. Forest Service manages its natural resources--it could also change who's in charge.

Members of a rag-tag group that developed the plan for the Plumas, Lassen, and Tahoe national forests say it uses common sense to achieve obvious goals: healthy forests and healthy small-town economies through time. Instead of harvesting timber to meet mandated targets, they propose managing the forest by a network of watersheds. And in place of land-use decisions made by bureaucrats in offices without windows in Washington, DC, local leaders will sit in judgment on local federal resources.

"Once we assume responsibility for the national forests in our own backyards, neither they nor we will ever be the same," says Michael B. Jackson, a Quincy environmental attorney.

If it works, the Clinton Administration will have a model for the grassroots ecosystem management the President has challenged rural communities to create. And beleaguered Forest Service officials could begin to reclaim their reputation as prudent managers of the nation's forest resources.

"None of us has ever done this before, and I'm sure we'll make mistakes," says Plumas County, California, Supervisor Bill Coates, "but I'd rather go down fighting than watching. We're trying to take the future in our own hands."

The plan for 2.5 million acres of prime timber land between Lake Tahoe and Lassen National Park has its roots in unpopular past decisions made by the Forest Service. After decades of controversial logging on national forests throughout the West, dramatic reductions in federal timber volumes were prompted by lawsuits, court orders, and a shift in public attitudes. On the Plumas National Forest, a historic leader among forests in California, the 1980s' 200 million-board-foot average dropped to around 50 million board-feet in 1994. The estimated harvest for 1995 is 28 million board-feet.

Coates, owner of a Quincy tire shop, looked at the economic future heading toward the rural towns he represents and saw nothing but loss--for his community as well as for Sierra Pacific Industries, the lumber company that dominates Plumas and Lassen counties and has supported Coates throughout his political career. The trend for timber-dependent communities was bad enough, but in 1993 it worsened with an interim Forest Service plan designed to keep the California spotted owl from suffering the fate of its northern cousin--becoming listed as endangered. Former Pacific Southwest Regional Forester Ron Stewart's guidelines banned the logging of trees more than 30 inches in diameter.

"Our small towns were already endangered," says Coates. "This was going to wipe them out."

If history had repeated itself, Coates would have girded up for yet another battle with both the Forest Service and local environmentalists. Instead, he walked directly into enemy territory--Jackson's law office. With him was Tom Nelson, a Sierra Pacific Industries forester and member of the California Board of Foresters. Among environmentalists, Coates is known as a do-or-die timber advocate and Nelson is characterized as a "snake in the Garden of Eden: smart, charming, and lethal."

Jackson is a self-described "environmental wacko." He has used his mouth and lawyer's license to sue local, state, and federal agencies over resource abuses. Jackson and Coates had been warring for 15 years in an owls-versus-jobs fight that polarized their community and made them confirmed political foes.

But this time Jackson shared Coates' fears--the effect on their community's future. Both have watched the life drain out of similar towns in Washington and Oregon in tragic cycles of disappearing jobs, failing businesses, arguments, alcohol, and abuse. "Not in my backyard," says Jackson. "These people are my neighbors. My heart doesn't bleed for Sierra Pacific Industries, but it bleeds for the folks getting $12 an hour who do not have alternatives for work."

So the enemies began meeting in private. Coates and Nelson gathered a group of timber-industry spokesmen who knew that the national-forest free-for-all was over. Jackson collected local anglers, tree-huggers, and mainstream environmentalists, and the hostile camps launched a series of edgy, tense discussions. They called themselves the Quincy Library Group after the only neutral gathering ground they could agree upon.

At first they had little in common beyond their mutual belief that U.S. Forest Service management has failed both the environment and local communities. Gradually they developed a plan to replace clearcutting on national forests with single-tree and group-selection logging. Most of the felled trees would be sent to local mills under Sustained Yield Unit legislation designed to protect both direct and indirect timber-dependent jobs. The plan also places strict limits on activities near streams, and it does not intrude on around 500,000 roadless acres environmentalists have battled to protect.

The coalition used as a guide an alternative to the Plumas Forest land-management plan developed by Friends of Plumas Wilderness, a Quincy-based environmental group. When Jackson and other environmentalists released it in 1986, the Plumas County establishment greeted their alternative plan with scorn and a spate of anonymous death threats. But by 1993, when Plumas Forest officials were scrambling to keep any timber program alive, the environmental alternative looked bounteous.

Sierra Pacific officials consider their compromises with environmentalists a means of keeping their sawmills open, says Nelson. "We're in business, and we want to stay in business for a long, long time. We've got to get along with our neighbors."

For Friends of Plumas Wilderness and other environmentalists, the plan they hammered out with the timber industry is nothing but good for the forest, says Jackson. "We retain 100 percent of our roadless area. We apply scientific standards to all of our riparian habitat. And we don't export logs out of our towns. It's everything we ever wanted."

Once the work begins, Quincy Library Group members plan to be looking over everybody's shoulder. "It's not any different from what Friends of Plumas Wilderness have always done except that this time we're going to be standing right next to them," says Nelson, the Sierra Pacific forester.

No one has illusions of a major turnaround in forest health. The five-year experimental term is simply not long enough to undo decades of fire suppression, overcutting, and stream degradation. But it's a good first step, says Coates. "I don't know anywhere in the United States an entire county has gotten environmentalists and people interested in jobs to agree on anything. All at once there are no sides. This is a brand new day."

For Forest Service officials, dealing with a single concept backed by a coalition of traditional enemies is so novel it has caught them off guard. Plumas Forest Supervisor Wayne Thornton has stomped out of group meetings in a pique of perceived betrayal. He has also been lavish with praise: "All sides are applying equal pressure, but they're singing from the same song sheet, and that's music to my ears."

The challenge for the Forest Service is implementing a forest-management alternative developed outside the agency, says Stewart, the former regional forester. "We're used to setting the agenda. This is a whole new way of doing business."

Instead of managing the forests to meet federal budgets and timber quotas, the Quincy Library Group's plan organizes management by watersheds. Each of the 10 ranger districts involved will log one 9,000-acre watershed each year. Around 900 acres will be harvested by group selection in lots no bigger than 2.5 acres, and another 2,700 acres by single-tree selection. The cuts will include all species of trees. Twenty years later, managers will go back and another 10 percent of the timber will be logged. Over a 200-year period every watershed will be entered 10 times, resulting in 10 different age classes in very small patches.

In addition, around 4,000 acres per ranger district will be treated annually to reduce forest fuels. The community group is as concerned about fire danger from fuel loading--particularly on the forests' drier east sides--as it is about overcutting the forests. To protect fisheries and watersheds, the Quincy Library Group has planned a restoration program for a network of riparian habitats and streams. All experimental work will be closely monitored as a basis for future management decisions.

Instead of simultaneous planning on as many as six different timber sales scattered all over the forest, Forest Service workers will concentrate on a single watershed at a time. "If each ranger district can't handle one watershed per year, there's something wrong," says Nelson.

After months of negotiating and lobbying, some Quincy Library Group members are beginning to suspect just that: Something is seriously wrong with the Forest Service, top to bottom. Their plan has been acclaimed as a viable grassroots resource-management solution by nearly everyone from local agency officials to the California congressional delegation and President Clinton himself. It is specifically mentioned in House and Senate conference committee reports on the 1995 Forest Service budget.

So far, however, the Forest Service hierarchy has done little more than talk about it. "We're starting from ground zero," Stewart says. "We don't have anything else like this, but we're committed to making it work as long as it meets our legal needs and the needs of the scientific community."

G. Lynn Sprague, Stewart's replacement as regional forester, made a similar commitment in a September letter to Coates. "I am very supportive of this kind of community interest and involvement and very much want to see some successes."

These kind of responses have frustrated Jackson, who says the Forest Service is not backing up its words with deeds. "They say they're all for this plan, but we're still waiting for them to do something--anything. We can't go out and mark timber sales. We can't do environmental analyses. We can't make political decisions. They have to do the jobs we pay them to do."

No planning can proceed until Congress passes Forest Service funding for 1995, says Sprague. He is optimistic Quincy Library Group projects will be included.

Within local Forest Service ranks the plan has met with mixed reviews. Some employees are as frustrated with their agency as community group members are and have welcomed the opportunity for real change in forest management. Others resent the intrusion of what they consider nonprofessional outsiders. "This group does not have all the answers, and they don't have the expertise they claim," says Lassen National Forest Supervisor Leonard Atencio.

The Quincy Library Group is by all accounts a motley bunch that includes a retired Marine drill sergeant and former San Francisco rock drummer; a lumber-union shop steward and an Oklahoma farm boy turned bureaucrat; red-necked ranchers, and housewives. What they lack in finesse and size, they make up in commitment and unanimity. "We don't have the numbers up here for any political clout," says Jackson. "The only power we have is the power of an idea we all agree upon."

Executing the plan on the ground requires around $12 million a year beyond the funds already allocated for the three national forests. Quincy Library Group members are pulling all the diverse political strings they can grasp to assure enough money to give the experiment a real test.

It is a test that will be closely watched by national environmentalists and timber-industry representatives. Both groups have fundamental disagreements with the plan but are generally reserving judgment until they see the details. Any deviation from good science or environmental law will draw an immediate challenge, says David Edelson, a Natural Resources Defense Council attorney. Several timber companies have threatened legal action over the plan to restrict timber processing to sawmills within the Quincy Library Group's working circle.

But group members agree the biggest threat to success is without question the Forest Service itself. Even if Congress fully funds the experiment, if the Forest Service continues to be as centralized and as unresponsive to local needs as in the past, says Coates, the agency will not be able to manage the forest on a watershed-by-watershed basis. "They've never been given a local mandate that says, 'Hey, we all agree, so go out and do a good job.' They don't know how to handle that sort of a mandate."

It won't, however, be the last local mandate, says Jackson. Resource-dependent communities everywhere can use the Quincy model to sort through dilemmas confronting them in their own backyards. "We could use this plan to resolve a lot of problems in the next five years--for our communities, for the environment, and for the U.S. Forest Service."

JANE BRAXTON LITTLE a newspaper correspondent and resource expert, lives in Greenville, California.
COPYRIGHT 1995 American Forests
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Title Annotation:ecosystem management plan for the national forests in Plumas, Lassen and Tahoe, California
Author:Little, Jane Braxton
Publication:American Forests
Date:Jan 1, 1995
Words:2136
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