A feel-good timber plan that's bad for public lands.
What could be more American than small-town citizens coming together
to solve problems by consensus? In the case of national-forest management,
it suggests a refreshing alternative to years of courtroom stalemates. So
when residents of the Quincy, California, area met for five years in their
local library to pound out a plan to protect their rural environment and
economy, you'd think everyone would breathe a sigh of relief. Instead, more
than 140 organizations, including the Sierra Club and virtually every other
environmental group in California, oppose forest legislation based on the
Quincy Library Group's recommendations.
That's because the legislation, which passed the House in July and at
press time was steaming through the Senate, would double the amount of logging
on one-third of national-forest lands in the Sierra Nevada in the name of
fire prevention-a forest-management theory that has never been tested on
a large scale. Even so, the law could be felt well beyond California: the
thought of an out-of-court, beyond-the-beltway solution to an intractable
national issue is so appealing that it has inspired Representative Bob Smith
(R-Ore.) to propose legislation that could bring Quincy-style accelerated
logging to other western forests.
The Quincy panel, comprising town leaders, timber-industry representatives,
and some local conservationists, conceived of an experimental program that
affects a staggering 2.5 million acres of public land spanning five counties
in Lassen, Plumas, and Tahoe national forests. To meet its goals of providing
a long-term supply of logs to the town's mill (owned by Sierra Pacific Industries,
the largest landowner in California) and of reducing the risk of catastrophic
fires, the Quincy panel pinned its hopes on thinning the forests.
Each year during the five years of the Quincy project, up to 70,000 acres
of timber will be logged using small clearcuts and quarter-mile-wide "fuel
breaks" that will remove as much as 70 percent of the forest canopy
in their paths. Whether the program will actually prevent fires is the
2.5-million-acre question. The slash left from thinning operations and the new
growth that follows may well be more flammable than the trees that were removed.
And many fuel breaks will follow ridgetops,
where the chance of fire is lowest. "Is
this going to just be linear logging under the guise of protecting the forest?"
asks Don Erman, an ecology professor at the University of California at
Davis. Erman recently directed a science team as part of the congressionally
mandated Sierra Nevada Ecosystem Project. His Sierra study, released in
1996, concludes that what's most important for a healthy forest is more
habitat-which means less logging, not more. The U.S. Forest Service itself
has significantly scaled back timber contracts in these mountains in recent
years to reduce damage to water quality, wildlife, and recreation.
The Quincy plan is "a vast experiment designed by a very small group
of people," says Sierra Club Legislative Director Debbie Sease, who
testified against the proposed legislation at a Senate Energy and Natural
Resources Committee hearing in July. The Sierra Club argues that smaller-scale
pilot projects, not wholesale congressional mandates, will be best for forests.
But critics of the Quincy experiment have been drowned out in the hubbub
over "consensus." It's an irony that could prove devastating if
a small number of voices are allowed to determine the fate of millions of
acres of national forest-in the Sierra and elsewhere. -Reed McManus
A Plan to Die For
With friends like these, wild creatures don't need enemies.
Asked for his thoughts on endangered species in 1995, freshman Representative
Sonny Bono mustered a penny's worth: "Give them all a designated area,"
he replied, "and then blow it up." What worried environmentalists
was the suspicion that the Californian spoke for many of his colleagues
in the 104th Congress. Midway through President Clinton's first term, triumphant
Republican leaders on Capitol Hill were declaring open season on the Endangered
Species Act; "wise users," meanwhile, spread trumped-up tales
of overzealous regulators running roughshod over put-upon property owners.
Amid such sound and fury, who could have guessed that the graver threat
was an arcane edict called "no surprises," courtesy of Clinton
and Bruce Babbitt, his conservation-minded Interior secretary?
"No surprises" is, ironically, part of a larger White House
strategy for defusing opposition to the Endangered Species Act. Rather than
hold developers, timber firms, and other large property owners to the 1973
act's ban against killing imperiled wildlife, the bridge-building Clintonites
have increasingly opted to cut deals with them. Authorized under a 1982
amendment, these compacts, known as habitat conservation plans, stipulate
that in return for forgoing development (or mitigating its impacts) on a
portion of their land, property owners are free to kill federally protected
animals by destroying habitat on other portions. The coup de grâce
is the "no surprises" clause, an ironclad guarantee that even
if a species edges closer to extinction under an inadequate plan, the feds
won't bother the landowner again for the life of the contract-in some cases,
as long as 100 years. Not surprisingly, many environmentalists regard "no
surprises" as a death warrant for fish and wildlife teetering on the
"In large part the problem is not with the law, it's with the way
it's being implemented by this administration," explains Tara Mueller,
a Sierra Club activist and environmental lawyer who has studied numerous
habitat conservation plans. While landowners invariably get what they want
at the bargaining table, Mueller says, the feds seldom even know what to
ask for in the way of wildlife protection: "In many cases there's no
analysis. It's a total giveaway."
Yet Babbitt, who calls HCPs a "win-win," has gained qualified
backing from some environmentalists. From their perspective, an endangered
bird in the hand beats two in the bush, particularly when the bush is on
private property: instead of risking drawn-out lawsuits by landowners, supporters
insist, they're getting at least a promise of protection for the embattled
critters. As many as 400 HCPs-covering an estimated 18 million private and
state-owned acres-are now either in the works or on the books.
One of the more contentious plans covers nearly 170,000 acres of forest
owned by the Plum Creek Timber Company in northern Washington State. "Babbitt
said, 'Go forth and negotiate it,' " recounts Charlie Raines, a Sierra
Club volunteer struggling to soften the blow from the 1996 plan, which gives
Plum Creek the right to "take" northern spotted owls and other
listed species, including goshawks and grizzlies. "Now we're going
to have to live with it for fifty to a hundred years."
In Alabama, local Club activists filed suit in April to block two habitat
conservation plans that would free condo developers to wipe out some 50
acres of beachfront property, or roughly one-seventh of the total habitat
of the Alabama beach mouse.
"The real issue is balance," says Rebecca Bernard, a Sierra Club staff
attorney. Instead of catering to
landowners, she says, the feds should be crafting plans that incorporate
sound science, adequate funding, and the goal of "recovery, not just
bare survival" for species at the abyss.
Sadly, far from backing away from "no surprises," the Clinton
administration seems determined to make it a permanent part of the legal
landscape. The White House has all but given its blessing to a proposed
reauthorization of the Endangered Species Act-sponsored by Senators Dirk
Kempthorne (R-Idaho), Max Baucus (D-Mont.), Harry Reid (D-Nev.), and John
Chafee (R-R.I.)-that would boost "no surprises" from administrative
policy to federal law. The change, says Mueller, would be "devastating."
Far from "win-win," Babbitt appears to be playing a zero-sum
game with wilds and wildlife. "People need to stop swallowing platitudes
like 'win-win,' " warns Mueller, "or we're going to lose our natural
heritage in the blink of an eye." -B. J. Bergman
Save the Clunkers!
Before you scrap that old rustbucket you've been driving, consider the latest news from
the EPA. For the first time, the old cars and trucks now being junked are, on average,
more fuel efficient than the new models rolling out of Detroit. Why is automotive
technology going backward? Because all those gas-hog minivans, sport utility vehicles, and
monster pickup trucks are classified as "light trucks," which means they're
required to average only 20.7 miles per gallon. These petroleum porkers now account for
nearly 40 percent of all vehicles sold, and will use more total gasoline over their
lifetimes than the 60 percent of regular new automobiles, which are required to get 27.5
You'd do better keeping your mid-1980s hooptie on the road. Back in 1987 and 1988,
before the Big Three rediscovered souped-up tanks, new vehicles averaged 25.9 mpg. The
average for the past three years is 24.6. This is progress? -Paul Rauber
Bikes, Not Bombs
When it comes to making secret military gear, nothing beats beryllium. Alloys of the
super-lightweight metal appear in spy planes and helicopters, while pure beryllium is used
as the trigger material in atomic bombs. The Department of Defense considers the stuff war
matériel, and keeps close tabs on the world's supplies.
Beryllium, it seems, also makes excellent mountain-bike frames. Former triathlete Chris
Hinshaw's San Jose, Californiabased company, Beyond Beryllium Fabrications, manufactures
high-end mountain bikes out of material obtained from melting down old Soviet aircraft
bodies and missile cones. (The missiles weren't fully assembled, so the metal isn't
radioactive.) To get the metal, they developed a partnership with three dozen newly
unemployed munitions workers in Kazakhstan, a former Soviet state and now an independent
nation. Russia has stockpiled more than 150 metric tons of beryllium, says Hinshaw.
"They have a tremendous inventory, and they want to sell it. Terrorists are willing
to pay a lot for it."
But apparently not as much as bikers. The workers refine the ore and ship it to a
Massachusetts company, which combines the beryllium with aluminum and other elements, then
forwards it to San Jose, where it is transformed into top-of-the-line mountain bikes.
An added bonus: armaments require pure, high-grade beryllium, and the alloy process
renders the metal useless for that purpose. These plowshares can never be beaten back into
swords. -Paul Karr