In Other States

The Quincy Library Affair

by Tim Fitzgerald

he small mill town of Quincy, California, is at the
center of a tempestuous national debate over who
should control management of federal land. Named for its unassuming meeting place, the Quincy Library Group is a community coalition that includes local environmentalists and timber industry representatives. The group has developed a management plan for the nearby Plumas and Lassen National Forests, which it is now pressing Congress to approve.

The legislation authorizing this plan has drawn the wrath of nearly every major environmental group in the country. Arguing that national forest policy should consider national as well as local interests, they have questioned the legality and propriety of circumventing the responsible federal agencies and going directly to Congress with a plan for a specific forest.

The unanswered question is whether established environmental groups are simply unwilling to yield authority to a local consortium or if the community coalition has exceeded its appropriate role. Whatever the answer, the resolution of this conflict will affect the future ability of local groups to control federal land policy.

The Quincy Library Group was formed partially in response to sharply curtailed timber sales in the Pacific Northwest resulting from the 1991 judicial decision to protect the northern spotted owl. To forestall similar court action to protect the California spotted owl, the Forest Service initiated efforts to protect habitat for the California owl. As a result, the annual timber harvest fell from 400 million board feet on the Plumas and Lassen forests during the 1980s to just over 90 million board feet in 1996.

Concerned about the long-term stability of their jobs, local employees of Sierra Pacific Industries, owner of the Quincy mill, began assessing options to keep the mill open. Their best hope came from an improbable place—a 1986 proposal by a coalition of local environmental groups for managing the national forests around Quincy. That plan, spearheaded by the local Friends of Plumas Wilderness, would have protected roadless and old-growth areas, but would also have permitted 240 million board feet of timber to be logged using selective cutting. The Forest Service had rejected the plan, in part because it did not permit enough logging in the pre-owl days.

In light of the new restrictions, however, 240 million board feet seemed attractive to members of the timber industry. In November 1992, Sierra Pacific forester Tom Nelson and Plumas County Supervisor Bill Coates sought out Michael Jackson, a local environmental lawyer with a long history of fighting the timber industry. The three found they could agree on the amount of logging and the areas that could be protected.

The discussions blossomed. By early 1993 a core group of about 30 people was meeting regularly in the back room of the library to develop an integrated proposal. The group had initial support from environmental groups as well as district and national Forest Service staff. "In the beginning we were heroes, the wave of the future," says Jackson.

The library group put together its Community Stability Proposal (CSP), which was based on the Friends of Plumas Wilderness plan. It was endorsed by both timber industry organizations and environmental groups (including the Plumas Audubon Society). While the plan allowed logging, it included several environmental provisions. It protected remaining old-growth and roadless areas from harvesting. It enlarged riparian buffer zones. It substituted selective harvest for clearcutting and used strategic thinning to reduce fuel loads and mitigate the danger of a catastrophic fire.

While the plan was widely praised, implementation was another matter. It became clear that while the proposed harvests were expected to pay for themselves eventually, an initial investment would be required. The group tried but failed to come up with a plan that would generate revenues by using the biomass removed during thinning operations.

Even without start-up money, the group took the plan to Washington, D.C. in early 1994 and presented it to the Forest Service. The agency commended the QLG for its effort and offered assurances that the proposals would be gradually integrated into existing forest plans as funding allowed. In late 1994, $1 million became available for the project, followed by $4.7 million in 1995 and again in 1996.

With some reservations, the Forest Service began experimenting with the QLG’s proposals. However, agency officials were concerned that the group had no track record or formal credentials and that timber interests had played a major role.

According to Michael Jackson, Forest Service officials, particularly at the supervisory and regional levels, were loath to cede control of national forests to an unknown grassroots group.

As discontent with the Forest Service’s sluggish implementation grew, the QLG adopted a new strategy. The members decided to seek a legislative solution. They believed they could be successful because of their strong political connections, according to Mike De Lasaux, one of the original members. QLG members began lobbying for a bill in Congress to carry out the whole plan, instead of waiting for the Forest Service to incorporate it piecemeal.

Introduced in early 1997, the Quincy Library Group bill (HR 858/S 1028) proposed that the plan be tried for five years, after which management would either revert to the former Forest Service plan, or a new, longer-term plan would be implemented. The plan would directly affect 1.6 million acres of the 2.5 million acres in the Lassen, Plumas, and one district of the Tahoe National Forests.

The QLG’s attempt to pass national legislation has alienated the national environmental community. National environmental groups not only refused to support the bill, but unleashed a string of attacks. "While we were fighting salvage rider sales we were good guys, but when we wanted to go ahead with our plan, we were not," says Jackson. Mike Yost, a member of the QLG with strong ties to the environmental movement, recalled that California environmental groups made them an offer: "Kill the bill" and they would "work collaboratively" with QLG. When QLG refused, Yost says the environmental groups threatened to "get ugly." Since then the relationship has become embittered.

The Sierra Club’s John Leary claims that the library group has a hidden political agenda that favors logging. As evidence, he points out, "There were no national or regional environmental groups (represented), but there were national and regional timber interests [Sierra Pacific]."He described the legislative effort as an "all or nothing" venture in which the QLG has refused to compromise. Jackson counters that the group came up with the best possible plan, drawing on the local expertise of the community while incorporating the most recent science.

Mike Leahy of the National Audubon Society says, "The Quincy bill short-circuits the process of NEPA [National Environmental Policy Act] and sets a bad precedent." Daniel Beard, National Audubon senior vice president wrote in a September 1997 letter to membership that the bill creates a "mandate that the final result must be QLG’s plan. Alternative plans, the cornerstone of NEPA’s public involvement, are not allowed. Thus, opportunities for true public involvement are eliminated." Environmental groups oppose particulars of the bill as well. The Sierra Nevada Forest Protection Campaign, a coalition of 44 California environmental groups, cites the lack of permanent protection from logging for 67,000 acres of old-growth timber, the construction of 100 miles of new logging roads, and what the coalition views as an unproven claim that forest thinning will reduce fire danger. Scott Hoffman, director of the coalition, doubts that the plan will bring long-term community stability, and suggests that the long-term costs of fire protection measures have not been properly accounted for.

National Audubon’s Leahy complains that the area is too large, the harvest too heavy and the duration too long. "They assume that you can achieve ecosystem improvements by establishing a sustainable economic base in timber production. And they assume that a forest health problem can be addressed by commercial operations," he says.

Despite the controversy, the bill passed the House by a vote of 429 to 1 in the last session. The Senate battle is likely to be stiffer. Senator Barbara Boxer of California, a cosponsor, has withdrawn her support. She says that she cosponsored the bill in the Senate with her colleague from California, Diane Feinstein, to strengthen its environmental provisions, but was unable to do so. "I am particularly disturbed that the bill does not include specific language to protect the most sensitive old-growth areas," Boxer says. Feinstein, who still supports the bill, says that the opposition from national environmental groups is "philosophical"—that is, they oppose it because they think it sets a dangerous precedent.

In sum, the bill has ignited what was a smoldering conflict between long-established national environmental groups and newly emerging grassroots groups. In an interview published in the High Country News, Undersecretary of Agriculture Jim Lyons summarized the controversy, "We may be seeing the devolution of the environmental movement to the local scale, and the national groups are not quite sure how to handle it."u

Tim Fitzgerald is a PERC intern with a degree in economics from Bowdin College. PERC is a Montana based research center providing market solutions to environmental problems.

 


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