The U.S. Forest Service approved a sweeping plan Thursday to manage 11.5 million acres of national forest land across the Sierra Nevada, renewing debate on how best to prevent wildfires like those that devastated Southern California a year ago.
Agency head Dale Bosworth rejected appeals by environmental groups, prompting immediate promises of lawsuits. The Forest Service maintains the plan will improve wildlife habitat while reducing fire danger, particularly around mountain communities.
Environmental critics called the plan a veiled effort to triple logging across 11 national forests, while a timber industry leader said it doesn’t go far enough to thin crowded, fire-prone forests.
California Forestry Association President Dave Bischel said the plan is “barely scratching the surface” of what needs to be done, requiring decades before forests are safer from wildfires.
But Craig Thomas of the Sierra Nevada Forest Protection Campaign called the plan “a train wreck” that leaves environmental groups no choice but to sue. “It’s the only choice we have left after 10 years of trying to work collaboratively.”
The Forest Service will cut or burn just a fifth of each year’s new forest growth, directing much of the remaining 80 percent into old tree stands that promote species like spotted owls.
Cutting valuable trees up to 30 inches in diameter is necessary to pay for trimming smaller, more fire-prone trees and brush that have little market value, Regional Forester Jack Blackwell said.
But in emphasizing logging larger, naturally fire-resistant trees in remote areas, the plan, critics say, actually increases fire danger around communities.
U.S. Agriculture Undersecretary Mark Rey has 15 days to decide whether to review Bosworth’s decision before it becomes final.
The decision is online at www.fs.fed.us/emc/applit/nhappdec.htm.