Forest plan shows limits of cooperative approach

ljacobson@njdc.com

QUINCY, Calif.--Here in the heart of the Sierra Nevada mountains, an ad-hoc assortment of Plumas County residents calling themselves the Quincy Library Group (QLG) has spent the past six years cobbling together a forest-management plan that they'd hoped would satisfy both environmentalists and the timber industry.

Arguing that their work represents the kind of collaborative policymaking the Clinton Administration has encouraged as an alternative to protracted environmental litigation, the QLG convinced the House to back the plan it came up with by a 429-1 margin. But while environmentalists initially backed the plan, they later attacked it for being too pro-timber, ultimately managing to stall it for months in the Senate through a legislative hold placed by Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif.

This week, however, the QLG bill returned from the brink. To the surprise of both sides, the plan is included--for now, at least--in an appropriations omnibus bill that's expected to be voted on this week.

If the bill is approved over environmentalist opposition, it could set an important precedent by widening local involvement in the management of federal lands. The bill's critics--including the Clinton administration--now only view it as an opportunity for timber, mining and grazing interests to get their way on federal lands.

Conservatives retort that the only real consequence would be a weakening of the national environmental groups' grip on federal policymakers. Indeed, the tantalizing possibility that the QLG could serve as a way to attack environmental activists has helped turn QLG into a cause celebre among conservative property-rights interests.

The tale of how a model of unity turned into a model of recriminations is long and complex.

The Feather River basin in Plumas County has been logged, mined and grazed for decades--so much so that second- or third-generation trees are essentially all that remain, said John Preschutti, a local environmentalist with the Plumas Forest Project. Then, in the early 1990s, Plumas County's timber-dependent economy skidded badly, partly due to lawsuits by environmentalists.

Times worsened when the U.S. Forest Service issued tough restrictions on logging to protect the California spotted owl in 1992. At that point, timber representatives--almost in desperation--approached environmentalists, including local attorney Michael B. Jackson, to seek a compromise that might save their industry. They met at the local public library because it was the one place where environmentalists and loggers wouldn't be able to scream at each other.

Eventually, Jackson and the timber officials were joined by a small number of Quincy-area residents who wanted to reduce local antagonism over forest policy. Together, the group--which ultimately became the QLG--drew up a collaborative alternative to a Forest Service management plan that governed one relatively uncomplicated parcel of land.

As the QLG's 30 core members succeeded in bridging their internal divides, they decided to expand their effort dramatically. Ultimately, the QLG developed a plan for managing 2.5 million acres of National Forest land, with the goal of protecting some tracts while allowing selective logging in others.

A key principle of the QLG's agenda was that well-planned logging can diminish the risk of forest fires. Early on, it proved to be a savvy vehicle for collaboration: Environmentalists and timber partisans agree that tree-culling for the purpose of fire prevention is valid--up to a point. Critics fault the QLG for proposing much more logging than they say is necessary to prevent forest fires.

For awhile, senior Clinton administration appointees, including James R. Lyons, undersecretary of agriculture for natural resources and environment, offered rhetorical and sometimes technical support for the QLG as a way of living up to the administration's earlier pro-collaboration rhetoric. Local Forest Service officials--who were excluded from active QLG participation--responded more cautiously to the QLG proposal, however. So the group raised the stakes by asking Rep. Wally Herger, R-Calif., to introduce legislation to enact their plan.

Local environmentalists saw Herger's bill as an attempt to leapfrog or even scuttle the established Forest Service planning process, but in time, even environmental stalwarts in the House--including George Miller of California, the Resource Committee's ranking Democrat--pledged their support in exchange for legislative modifications.

When the bill passed the House overwhelmingly, national environmental groups--based far away from the battle lines in Quincy--were "blindsided," acknowledges Neil Dion, a local environmentalist with the Plumas Forest Project. "The QLG was very successful at portraying their story the way they wanted it portrayed," Dion said. "It looked like a community consensus, which was a sexy thing to do. House members wanted a symbol, and everybody went away happy. But then the environmental community got well-enough organized to shut it down in the Senate."

Eventually, even the Clinton administration began to get cold feet. In an interview in September, a senior administration official said that although the QLG's ideals and many of its proposals are praiseworthy, the administration decided to oppose the pending QLG bill because "the legislative management of any National Forest is not a policy we can support, because it creates inflexibility. . . . The QLG issue has in many respects become a political football.

Even more than the Forest Service, Boxer--an initial supporter of QLG who is now its main foe--received chief-villain status from QLG partisans. They claim that her about-face stems from her need to wring campaign donations from environmental groups during her tough reelection bid this year.

Critics counter that the QLG is hardly short of its own political connections. Sierra Pacific Industries--the area's dominant timber company--was a key player in developing the QLG plan, and it maintains close ties to both Herger and Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., a QLG supporter who personally visited with the group's members early on.

More than anything, the QLG bill turned into a battle between local and national concerns. QLG members charge that national environmental groups sought to frustrate the desire of locals to influence the management of their own backyards. The QLG's critics, on the other hand, suggest that the appeal of the QLG's logger-environmentalist coalition is oversold. The coalition, they say, only survives because it ignores--if not demonizes--interested outsiders who offer principled criticisms.

Boise State University political scientist John Freemuth, who served on, and later resigned from, a federal-lands task force in Idaho earlier this year, said he believes that national and local groups will remain at loggerheads as long as both groups continue to believe that they have the preeminent stake in managing federal lands.

Back in Quincy, residents say the encroachment of national politics--on both sides--has damaged the mood for collaboration. Environmentalists interviewed here chose their meeting places carefully, to avoid accidentally bumping into their critics. Another source cautioned a reporter to speak elliptically during an interview so as not to be overheard by partisans from one side or another.

But if hope for an understanding has grown thin, it hasn't vanished entirely. "When you're facing losing your employment, dealing with the stress of your family and trying to sustain a way of life, it's not easy," said QLG member Rose Comstock, a member of California Women in Timber. "Sometimes it's easier to go out screaming and yelling, rather than sitting and having rational discussions. But you don't have any winners in an argument, really. Not this one, anyway."

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