Sierra Nevada logging battle resembles Northwest landmark case

TRUCKEE, Calif. - Environmentalists trying to halt logging in 10 national forests of the Sierra Nevada are borrowing from the playbook of allies who shut down timber harvests across much of the Pacific Northwest nearly a decade ago.

A new lawsuit by conservation groups resembles one that led to the landmark ruling by U.S. District Judge William Dwyer of Seattle that brought federal logging to a standstill in 1991 in Oregon, Washington and much of Northern California.

The groups want a federal judge in Sacramento to prohibit logging in national forests in the Sierra until the Forest Service adopts a plan ensuring the survival of the California spotted owl and the Pacific fisher, a weasel-like mammal already extinct across much of the mountain range.

The Forest Service has been trying to assemble such a plan since 1992 and agency officials say they intend to produce it in December.

Environmentalists say they've been promised the document before and it was never delivered. They say no more logging should occur until the protections are in place, especially because the Forest Service acknowledges the owl population is declining.

''The government cannot continue to destroy these forests while it simultaneously considers a plan to protect them,'' said Rachel Fazio, a lawyer for one of the plaintiffs, the Earth Island Institute's John Muir Project.

Judge Dwyer ruled nine years ago that the Bush administration had no plan to protect the threatened northern spotted owl - a cousin of the California bird dependent on old-growth forest habitat. He found the Forest Service was violating the National Forest Management Act and National Environmental Policy Act, which required the agency to maintain a ''viable population'' of all species found within a particular national forest.

''It sounds very similar,'' said Patti Goldman, managing attorney for the EarthJustice Legal Defense Fund in Seattle, formerly the Sierra Club Legal Defense Fund when it helped wage the 1991 battle.

''The heart of what was going on was really the inadequacy of the existing forest plans and the lack of a viability plan,'' she said.

President Clinton called a Forest Summit in Portland, Ore., after his election in 1992. His administration later proposed a plan called ''Option 9'' that survived court tests and allowed for logging to resume on federal lands in the Northwest.

But timber harvest levels have never been the same. Annual averages dropped to one-fourth or less of the timber the Forest Service produced during the peak years of the 1980s.

The similarities to the Northwest case are not lost on industry officials who fought over the northern spotted owl and now are closely watching the dispute along the California-Nevada border.

''Dwyer's ruling was the beginning in terms of setting the framework for the Clinton era,'' said Chris West, vice president of the Northwest Forestry Association based in Portland, Ore. ''It was the case that made forests an issue in the 1992 campaign, that led to Clinton's forest summit and led us down the path we see here now in the Pacific Northwest.''

West's group recently merged with the Independent Forest Products Association and now represents 100 companies in 12 Western states, including California.

''I would look closely at the people who are really behind the case,'' he said. ''Their agenda is clearly - and has been for a long time - zero cut on national forests.''

The Forest Conservation Council and Tule River Conservancy are the other plaintiffs in the suit filed with U.S. District Judge William B. Shubb.

The contested area stretches from the Sequoia National Forest 100 miles north of Los Angeles, north along the mountains past Yosemite National Park and Lake Tahoe near Reno, Nev., to the Modoc National Forest on the Oregon border.

''We as an industry are being attacked at every turn by the environmental groups,'' said Breeze Cross, president of the Truckee-Tahoe Lumber Co. ''All these lawsuits have an impact on our lumber supply.''

The Sierra Nevada Protection Campaign and the Center for Biological Diversity petitioned the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in April to declare the California spotted owl an endangered species.

Forest Service officials say owl protection will be included in the pending Sierra Nevada Framework Project, a broad amendment of the management plans for each of the forests at issue.

Fazio said none of the alternatives would allow logging to continue at its current level.

One of the preferred alternatives would reduce logging levels to less than half the 329 million board feet harvested on the 10 national forests last year, she said.

Fazio said the existing limited protections for the owl are based on old population surveys and mapping of habitat dating to 1992.

The lawsuit maintains California spotted owl populations continue to decline by 7 percent to 10 percent a year ''and we don't have any idea how many acres of owl habitat are being cut,'' she said.

Forest Service spokesman Rick Alexander told the Sacramento Bee the interim protections in place since 1993 are ''better than nothing.''

He told The Associated Press the agency had no comment, referring calls to Assistant U.S. Attorney Ed Brennan in Sacramento.

''We are confident the Forest Service is in compliance with federal law and we will oppose any request for an injunction,'' Brennan said Thursday.

The interim protections prohibit logging of trees larger than 30 inches in diameter and require maintenance of a 50 percent forest canopy in areas where owls live and hunt, he said.

''The interim guidelines were based on a report issued by a team of scientists that know as much about the spotted owl as anyone knows,'' Brennan said.

''The whole purpose of the interim guidelines was to prohibit any further reduction in habitat of the spotted owl and prevent any degredation of the quality of the habitat,'' he said.

If timber industry leaders have their way, the agency won't implement any of the alternatives in the Sierra Framework's draft environmental impact statement due out in December.

''Unless changes are made, what is there currently should go back to the drafting board and begin from square one,'' said Chris Nance, the California Forestry Association's vice president for public affairs.

''None of the alternatives presented address what our own government deems to be the most serious threat facing these forests - catastrophic wildfire,'' he said.

West agrees the framework doesn't allow for enough thinning of forests over grown after decades of fire suppression.

''We think it goes overboard for some of these species like the California owl to the detriment of forest health and other critters,'' he said. ''The solution may be more timber harvesting.''


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