Plan to study effects of logging gets too complex, is downsized

By Jane Braxton Little --
Sacramento Bee Correspondent

April 16, 2003

QUINCY, CA-- Citing a lack of public support, the U.S. Forest Service is scaling back an aggressive plan to test the effects of different levels of logging on California spotted owls in the Plumas and Lassen national forests.
The study, originally designed as a measurable science-based assessment on 180,000 acres of federal land, will be revamped to emphasize on-the-ground activities instead of scientific rigor, said Matt Mathes, an agency spokesman.

"We still expect good scientific information, but not as good as in the original plan," he said.

Instead of studying how owls and other wildlife react to three different levels of logging intensity, the agency will include the study projects in the regular program of forest work, said Plumas National Forest Supervisor Jim Pena.

"It's a trade-off of scientific standards for greater flexibility," he said.

The plan, released in December, was designed to review the effects of the 1999 Herger-Feinstein Quincy Library Group Forest Recovery Act, an experimental program to test how best to protect forests and forest habitat from fires and destructive logging while still producing enough timber to keep local sawmills in operation.

The administrative study called for cutting up to 600 million board feet of timber and building 160 miles of roads.

Agency officials decided to change the scope following preliminary efforts to design logging and thinning projects. The area originally covered was so large and the projects so complex that officials concluded no work would be accomplished on the ground, Mathes said.

"If the work isn't done, we can't study the results, and we do want results to study," he said.

The original plan would also have slowed implementation of the Quincy projects. Despite a recent five-year extension until 2009, Forest Service officials are under pressure to comply with the legislation, which mandates logging and thinning up to 70,000 acres a year for five years.

Pena said the complexities and increased scope imposed by the scientific study would have delayed most of the Quincy work beyond an acceptable time.

"It kept getting bigger and bigger and more and more complex. If we couldn't do projects in 2004, we couldn't live with it," Pena said.

When it was released in December, the administrative study met widespread criticism.

Environmentalists said it required too much logging over too much time on too small a land base.

Quincy Library Group members joined the critics as vocal opponents. In addition to opposing construction of new roads, they objected to the intensity of the logging planned in small patches and in corridors to reduce the threat of catastrophic wildfire.

Quincy Library Group member Linda Blum expressed relief Tuesday after learning that the plan was being downsized to exclude cutting trees larger than 30 inches in diameter and to eliminate some of the roads.

"I'm glad some of that design won't be implemented. We hated those projects," she said.

Jay Watson, California director of The Wilderness Society, said the Forest Service was trapped by its own mandates to do a full-scale scientific study and to fully implement the Quincy demonstration project.

"It's unfortunate that a study, which was going to produce some long-needed answers, has fallen by the wayside. But I'm not convinced the agency wanted to find those answers," Watson said.

Mathes said the "rapid loss" of public support was a key factor in the decision to scale back the administrative study.

"For something on public land to work, we need to have support. We weren't seeing it," he said.

The agency will withdraw the notice of proposed action published in the Federal Register in December.

Instead of a comprehensive environmental review, the agency will study the effects of proposed projects on a case-by-case basis, Pena said.


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