USDA Forest Service Works with Local Groups

Published December 1, 1999

The U.S. Forest Service recently took a major step to protect spotted owl habitat and preserve old-growth forests, while at the same time providing for selective logging and clearing underbrush that causes wildfires.

The Service’s so-called “Alternative Two,” the management plan chosen, closely reflects a plan proposed by a local citizens’ organization, The Quincy Library Group (QLG), named after the library where it met in Quincy, California. The management plan will affect 1.5 million acres of northern California’s Plumas, Lassen, and Tahoe National Forests. It is a pilot program called for in the Herger-Feinstein Quincy Library Group Forest Recovery Act, passed by Congress in 1998.

The Forest Service modified Alternative Two “so that no timber harvesting will be permitted in suitable owl habitat unless and until a long-term California spotted owl strategy for the Sierra Nevada is released that allows such an activity. This modification covers more than 420,000 acres of such habitat in the pilot project area,” said Mark Madrid, supervisor of the Plumas National Forest. Matt Mathes, a spokesperson for the Forest Service in northern California, told Environment News, “The California spotted owl is neither threatened nor endangered, unlike the northern spotted owl.”

The Herger-Feinstein bill establishes a five-year pilot program and was the culmination of seven years of work by the QLG to resolve local issues over the use of national forests in their area. Representative Wally Herger (R-California) said “I am extremely pleased that we were able to collaborate to guarantee a zero effect on owl habitat. The QLG plan ensures that the pilot project will be implemented according to established owl guidelines. In addition, the plan provides the flexibility necessary to protect owl habitat on the ground. This is a win-win for the environment and our communities.”

The Forest Service’s chosen management plan also calls for a system of “defensible fuel profile zones” on 40,000 to 60,000 acres to allow brush-clearing to reduce the threat of wildfires. The plan also permits the logging of trees no larger than 30 inches in diameter. In another 8,700 acres, cleared open areas of one-half to two acres in size will be developed. According to the Forest Service, the Act provides for protection of streambeds and watershed restoration. At most, 11 percent of the three forests will be affected over the five years of the pilot program.

The House of Representatives Subcommittee on Forests and Forest Health, chaired by Helen Chenoweth (R-Idaho), held a field hearing in Redding, California in late August to discuss implementation of the Act. Although Senator Dianne Feinstein (D-California) was unable to attend she sent word that she “would like to personally thank Representatives Helen Chenoweth and Wally Herger who have monitored this project closely. I particularly want to say how much I appreciate that the Forest Service, the Fish and Wildlife Service, and the Quincy Library Group were able to work together to craft such a complex and technically challenging project. I think they should all be commended for a job well-done. The process demonstrated that our system of government truly works as it should.”

Some groups, including the Sierra Nevada Forest Protection Campaign (SNFPC), nevertheless oppose the alternative selected by the Forest Service. Said SNFPC’s Scott Hoffman Black, “to comply with environmental laws all these species must be protected, not just the owl. The Forest Service is opening itself up to challenge for failing to address all of the animals in these forests.” He added, “our concern is that the eastern half of the landscape placed under the Quincy plan has few owls and therefore little protection. These eastside pine forests will suffer under the minimal wildlife protection while being subject to the new intensive logging in the Quincy bill.”

Feinstein countered, “How ironic that there is opposition to the Quincy Library Group plan being voiced at a time when scores of major fuel-driven wildfires are sweeping through the Sierra Nevada forests burning trees, killing wildlife, including endangered species, potentially threatening homes and entire communities right outside of Quincy. These fires have shown that the old methods of fire suppression at any cost have left many of our pristine Sierra Nevada forests in grave jeopardy of a fire that we cannot control.”

The Forest Service’s decision is in a 60-day appeal period. In the meantime, to address the habitat of the California spotted owl in the long term, a “framework project Environmental Impact Statement” (EIS) is being drafted and should be available in draft form in October, according to Forest Service spokesman Mathes.

Mathes explained that the EIS will deal with the habitat of the California spotted owl in all of the Sierra Nevada forests and will probably include eight alternatives, one of which the Forest Service will identify as its “preferred” alternative. After a period of public comment, a final decision will be rendered. It is possible some of the habitat areas could affect proposed logging sites in the QLG program.