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Sierra Magazine
Lay of the Land

Fire Sale | A Plan to Die For | Save the Clunkers | Bikes, Not Bombs

Fire Sale in the Forests

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 brink.

"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 mpg.

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

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