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Carving up California
Logging industry misleads on Sierra plan

by Chad Hanson
Sunday, February 16, 2003

See San Francisco Chronicle article

As the Bush administration puts the Clinton-era Sierra Nevada Framework Plan on the chopping block in order to clear the way for increased logging of mature trees, the timber industry's media machine is in full swing with copious self-serving misinformation.


photo by René Voss

For instance, David Bischel, president of the California Forestry Association, claimed in The Chronicle on Feb. 4 that out of 227 "fuels reduction" projects on the national forests of the Sierra Nevada, about "85 percent of them [are] either appealed or litigated." In fact, the Forest Service's own Web site shows that only about 10 to 15 percent of these projects are appealed by environmental groups. Only about 2 percent are litigated.

Bischel also neglected to mention that the challenged projects were large timber sales that proposed to remove mature trees under the guise of fire-risk reduction. Fire ecologists tell us that removal of the mature overstory trees that comprise the forest canopy will actually increase fire severity by reducing shade, and increasing sun exposure. This not only creates hotter, drier conditions, it also increases the growth rate of flammable brush.

Environmentalists consistently supported the framework projects designed to reduce the thickets of undergrowth caused by past logging and fire suppression.

Studies have shown that such projects effectively reduce the incidence of large severe fires. But the Bush administration's timber industry buddies have no interest in underbrush. They want increased access to economically-valuable mature trees on our public lands, and President Bush is eager to comply.

Bischel also pointed to large 2002 fires in Oregon and California, and claimed that "we came within a whisker of losing the giant sequoias to fire" last year. In reality, while the Oregon fire was indeed large, only about 12 percent of the area burned intensely according to Forest Service scientists, who were quoted saying that the fire had a positive effect ecologically.

Bischel's comments on the McNally fire in Sequoia National Forest are equally misleading. According to an October 2002 analysis by the supervisor's office of the Sequoia National Forest, only 8 percent of the area was intensely burned. The giant sequoia groves have experienced fires many times in their long history. In fact, giant sequoias are not only one of the most fire-resilient conifers on the planet, they also depend upon fire for regeneration, because their cones need fire to trigger release of seeds. Flames must be high enough to scorch the lower crown of the giant trees.

Interestingly, even the small portion of a given forest fire that does burn intensely provides a critical ecological role. Numerous species depend upon moderately to severely burned forests for habitat. They nest in the natural cavities that occur in the larger dead trees and feed upon the abundant native insects that are attracted to fire-killed timber. A number of these species are imperiled in the Sierra, in part due to post-fire salvage logging of burned forests.

Finally, the Bush administration and its timber industry allies make the circular argument that they must gut the Sierra Nevada Framework Plan and allow dramatically increased logging of mature trees supposedly in order to generate revenue to reduce the flammable brush caused by logging. In reality, because federal timber is routinely sold for pennies on the dollar, a brush reduction project only costs taxpayers about 15 percent more than a timber sale of equal acreage, according to numerous U.S. Forest Service environmental assessment documents.

Additionally, the flammable thickets of shrubs, weeds and saplings that rapidly develop after logging must be reduced within several years at a price tag roughly equivalent to the initial logging project. Thus, logging actually costs twice as much as simply funding brush reduction directly through congressional appropriations.

What's more, the administration and its allies in Congress have hatched an appropriations rider that would allow such logging to occur without any revenue being generated. Under the guise of "goods for services," as long as a logging project is superficially packaged as "fuels reduction," the Forest Service will simply give mature trees away to logging corporations as supposed payment for the "service" of removing them.

It is clear that the Bush administration and its allies seek nothing less than to turn California's beloved national forests over to the timber industry.

Sound fire management, and the ecological health of Sierra Nevada national forests, are too important for political games. Can we have an honest debate on forests, or will we just see more hot air from the Bush administration and logging interests?

Chad Hanson, executive director of the John Muir Project (www.johnmuirproject.org), is a national director of the Sierra Club.