SACRAMENTO, Calif. - A plan released Tuesday by the U.S. Forest Service for managing nearly 12 million acres of Sierra Nevada forests protects old timber but offers uncertain safeguards for fragile watersheds.
The long-awaited document - still a work in progress - is the culmination of years of research into the ecological health of the mountain range that stretches hundreds of miles in eastern California, from Kern County to the Modoc Plateau.
The goal is to protect the Sierra from increased logging and recreation and preserve wildlife habitats. The mountain range is one of the world's great tourist draws, and includes Lake Tahoe, Mt. Whitney and Yosemite and Sequoia national parks.
The plan strikes a balance between protecting the forest from fire danger and helping species that depend on old growth survive, said Regional Forester Bradley Powell, the Forest Service's top-ranking official in California.
''We're quite pleased about this draft,'' Powell said.
Not surprisingly, environmentalists and timber interests were critical of the study, the latest in a series of federal environmental reports that seek to strike a middle ground between warring factions.
Environmentalists generally supported the direction of the study, but said it didn't go far enough. Loggers said it went too far.
The Forest Service's proposal, called an environmental framework, covers all or part of 11 federal forests - the Lassen, Tahoe, Modoc, Plumas, Eldorado, Stanislaus, Sierra, Inyo, Sequoia and Humboldt-Toiyabe national forests, and the Lake Tahoe Basin Management Unit.
It doesn't apply to private land.
The document seeks to set in place environmental safeguards while still allowing timber harvesting and other activities, such as grazing off-road vehicles, camping, hiking and other uses.
At issue is to what degree those activities can take place on federal land while maintaining protections for species such as the bighorn sheep, the Pacific fisher weasel and the California spotted owl.
The study offers two suggestions.
One would permit allow some 351 million board-feet (mbf) of timber for sale annually over the next four years; the other would allow 141 mbf.
After 2005, those numbers would decline to 190 mbf and 72 mbf, respectively.
Environmentalists were critical of two provisions, the 351 mbf benchmark, and the provisions for watershed protections, which they said were based on decade-old data from the Northwest.
The provisions define how close timber harvesting and road-building can get to streams and rivers, and the impact on water sources of erosion and silt buildup.
''Why should anyone import an aquatic strategy from one part of the country into the Sierra Nevada, when other scientists have already developed Sierra-specific approaches?'' asked Jay Watson of The Wilderness Society.
''They (Forest Service officials) are delaying the inevitable. If they are not aggressive in making decisions today, then they'll just have to revisit the issue in a much shorter period of time,'' Watson said.
The California Forestry Association, which represents timber and wood-products companies, said the Forest Service wants to eliminate Sierra logging and that, in turn, would boost the risk of fire.
''What that means to us is that harvesting trees will no longer be a part of the forest health solution, which actually increases the threat of catastrophic wildfire,'' CFA spokesman Chris Nance said.
''This is a grave oversight for forest health,'' he added.
The proposal now goes before the public for three months of hearings across California. Powell, who has final authority, is expected to decide by the end of the year.
An earlier study was delayed, and a second report was withheld at the last minute because the Clinton administration was concerned its findings were contrary to those of a respected study released earlier by the Sierra Nevada Ecosystem Project.