JACK BLACKWELL
Rich Pedroncelli  /  AP
U.S. Forest Service official Jack Blackwell shows a comparison between the damage caused by fires and the projected reduction under a new forest-thining plan unveiled Thursday.
msnbc.com staff and news service reports
updated 1/23/2004 10:54:29 AM ET 2004-01-23T15:54:29

The Forest Service said Thursday it plans to spend $50 million annually to thin Sierra Nevada forests, tripling the logging that would have been allowed under a Clinton-era plan.

Regional Forester Jack Blackwell said the revised plan is needed to prevent devastating wildfires like those that swept Southern California last fall, though opponents dismissed the comparison.

“You have to thin the forest to protect the forest,” Blackwell said.

Even before the plan is fully under way, the agency over the next year will remove 2 million tons of burnable material and thin 42,000 acres around vulnerable mountain communities, he said.

Once implemented, he said the plan will reduce by 30 percent the number of acres severely burned within the next 50 years. About 700,000 acres will be cleared around mountain communities.

The plan would also nearly double the acreage of nesting habitat for the spotted owl, an endangered species.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, which earlier had expressed concerns about owl habitat, called the final plan “a reasonable balance” between wildlife and wildfire protections.

Blackwell unveiled the service’s new “Forests with a Future” program with a video and wall-sized four-color posters developed by a professional marketing firm.

Critics of new policy
Environmental organizations said they will consider an administrative appeal within the next 90 days, and may sue over the plan because of the logging increase.

“It could be called ’Back to the Future’ instead of ’Forests with a Future”’ because it adopts logging rules similar to those of 1993 that the service later rejected, said John Buckley, of the Central Sierra Environmental Resource Center.

Barbara Boyle of the Sierra Club said her organization will counter the Forest Service marketing campaign with one of its own.

“I don’t think people understand the full extent of what the Bush administration is trying to do,” she said.

State Attorney General Bill Lockyer, a Democrat, condemned the decision. “Once again, the Bush White House has demonstrated its continued disregard for the environment and willingness to sacrifice natural resources Californians cherish,” he said.

“Under the guise of addressing fire risk, the revised framework will substantially increase commercial logging, endanger wildlife habitats and weaken water quality protections and grazing limitations.”

Those for more thinning
U.S. House Resources Committee Chairman Richard Pombo, R-Calif., welcomed the new policy but said the Forest Service isn’t doing enough to cut the fire danger. "The plan recognizes the problem, but lacks sufficient action to solve it," he said in a statement.

The California Forestry Association echoed his views.

“I think the Forest Service is philosophically moving in the right direction to get their hands around the catastrophic fire danger,” said David Bischel, the group’s president.

The Associated Press and Reuters contributed to this report.

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