Plumas County News
People who know the Wheeler and Moonlight fire areas can easily see that the catastrophic fires were either stopped or extremely reduced in their severity where the forest had been thinned according to treatments prescribed by the Quincy Library Group more than a decade ago.
Photo and story by Alicia Knadler
Indian Valley Editor
It’s the timber industry that is the last bastion of a healthy forest, not the environmentalists or the Forest Service – this is what one hears from the residents and other people whose boots are on the ground out there amidst the devastation on the Plumas National Forest.
One such person is timber operator Randy Pew.
He has been sorely tested the past several years by the constant barrage of lawsuits that keep stopping work on the forest.
The most recent decision, made by San Francisco-based 9th Circuit Judge John T. Noonan, effectively shuts down the thinning needed to prevent more catastrophic fires, like the Wheeler and Moonlight wildfires of 2007.
The forests have become clogged with fuel for wildfires since the spotted owl icon brought logging almost to a screeching halt more than a decade ago.
And now, by the time loggers can get into a burned area to clean it up, it’s almost too late to get the job done safely, and it’s too late to harvest any real value out of the timber.
On the Storrie Fire, for example, timber operators finally got the go-ahead from the Forest Service in the third summer after the fire.
But workers had to quit toward the end of the summer, because the dead trees were falling apart by then and too dangerous to work under.
Will the same thing happen in the area of the Moonlight and Wheeler wildfire areas?
It seems so.
The latest word from the Forest Service is that it has recently decided to combine the two areas into one big project area for environmental reasons.
And there is little hope that the six Moonlight roadside-hazard sales will be put out to bid until late August, according to Public Information Officer LeeAnne Schramel.
There is also little hope for any other kind of timber work on the forest since Judge Noonan’s decision effectively puts a stop to the Herger-Feinstein Quincy Library Group program of work as well as fire salvage and about 60 million board feet of green timber sales this year.
Even before he knew of the judge’s decision, Pew had little hope that timber operators would be able to get in to salvage the hundreds of millions of board-feet still standing, dead in what used to be a forest.
“When did we become a nation that can afford to let 70,000 acres of timber go to waste?” he asked with a shake of his head. “There’s no way that this makes any sense to me.”
On an almost three-hour drive through the Plumas National Forest recently, almost all Pew saw was devastation.
Around Antelope Lake, he drove through areas burned in the Wheeler and Moonlight fires of 2007, and areas burned even before that.
The sight of the lifeless and unnaturally quiet woodland was almost too much for his passenger, who was speechless for much of the drive.
Around one corner, the deathly quiet was broken suddenly by the sounds of machinery.
Smith Crane & Rigging workers from Markleeville were busy working the Dry Flat Roadside Hazard sale.
Only four of five such sales in the Antelope area are currently being worked, including the Mt. Hough Sage Roadside Hazard Stewardship being worked by Kickin' Enterprises, the Last Chance Roadside Hazard being worked by Sierra Pacific Industries, and the Antelope Roadside Hazard being worked by Pew Forest Products.
Pew was also awarded the Beckwourth Camp 14 Fire Salvage project, though his crews weren’t on it yet.
All work on these projects must be completed by March 2009.
Beginning with the Hungry Creek Project back in the late 1990s, Pew has been almost the only timber operator who bothers to bid on the actual thinning work designed under the Quincy Library Group legislation.
He wonders how much longer timber operators like himself can hold on.
Times are becoming more desperate too, with timber prices hitting an all-time low not seen since the 1970s and 1980s.
Worse yet, operating expenses have never been higher, especially the cost of fuel and tires.
“Since all the QLG stuff is being litigated, guys like me need the work,” Pew said. “Or we might not be around to do it later.”
And like his earlier statement about waste, he just doesn’t understand why there is so much litigation.
Looking around the forest, one can easily see his point.
In areas where his workers have spent the last 10 years thinning the forest according to QLG-based forest recovery plans, the fires were either stopped or reduced to a less-than-lethal intensity.
But in many of the untreated areas, the earth is gray —sterilized like a moonscape. Even water doesn’t penetrate the slick, gray ash.
In treated areas, the trees are still alive, though a little singed at the bottom, which is actually good for the trees and the habitat, Pew said.
His sentiments have been echoed in the past on tours with retired Forest Service Fuels Officer Scott Abrams.
When the new brush sprouts in these areas, it will be more attractive to deer and other wildlife than the old, woody shrubs were.
And in the Antelope burn from two years ago, a logged area isn’t pretty at all, according Pew, “but it has a future.”
Chips have been spread to cut down on erosion, small, sparsely populated clumps of grass sport a springtime color of bright green, and a hillside of planted seedlings are about six inches tall now.
A nearby untreated and unmitigated area is still barren, with the blackened trunks of 100 trees standing there like so many exclamation points.
“It’s this way everywhere we go,” Pew said. “It’s obvious that where we’ve thinned, the trees are still alive, and where we haven’t, they aren’t.”
It’s getting harder and harder to make a living,” he said. “Even if we win a bid for a job, they (environmentalists) might stop it.”
Which is exactly what is happening given the decision by Judge Noonan.
Bill Wickman, a private consultant with the American Resource Council agrees. He recently shared his opinion about the “unfortunate” decision.
Judge Noonan decided the case largely based on a legal opinion submitted by Attorney General Jerry Brown as a friend of the court, Wickman said, rather than basing his decision on arguments in the environmental impact study and alternatives presented during the public comment period or argued in the courtroom.
The 9th Circuit panel recognized that reducing wildfire risks is imperative from many public interest perspectives, Wickman shared.
The judges also recognized that control of wildfires is imperative for the people and wildlife that live in the forests and to the defenders of the habitat, especially after the catastrophic fires of 2007.
“Yet, the 9th Circuit panel has effectively enjoined the very timber thinning it said was ‘imperative’ to reduce the risks of catastrophic wildfires,” Wickman said. “That result is not in the public interest and is not equitable under the panel's own logic.”
He thinks their reasoning is unsound as well.
“They made their decision because some unrealistic alternatives were not fully explored,” Wickman said.
How successful would yet another petition to Congress for greater appropriations be?
Salvation for the economically distressed schools and people of Plumas County depends on the money that could be brought in by the hundreds of millions of board feet of timber that stand, dead, on the Plumas National Forest.
The Secure Rural Schools money may be forthcoming for only one more year, Pew said, and there’s enough timber out there to fund the schools for at least four more years.
And salvation of the remaining forest depends on the ability of timber operators, like Pew, to go out and do the work a healthy forest needs.
Catastrophic wildfires of such sterilizing intensity are relatively new to residents of the national forests on the Sierra-Nevada and Cascade ranges.
And these fires have been burning more frequently and more intensely in the past decade, at least that is what it seems like to the families who have lived on the edges of the forest for several generations.
Will salvation be found for them in this devastation? Or will Judge Noonan and his San Francisco-based legal decisions continue to foment even more devastation in the future?
Residents should not adopt a “wait and see” attitude – they should become activists themselves.
Wickman urges residents and organization leaders to contact their representatives and the environmental groups that are stopping work in the forest.
He really thinks it would help if residents could somehow get the attention of the people in the environmental community and show them what the real impacts are.
Local and national environmental groups are turning a blind eye to the truth, he said.
“Their intention is to destroy the timber industry,” he continued. “And they don’t see the harm to the environment, rural counties and schools that this is causing.”
Residents should also inform their government representatives the same way.
“The more input they get on impacts, the more willing they would be to work on their behalf with environmentalists at the Tahoe Summit in August.
“Then maybe they will take legislative action to make sure these projects do get through without all this litigation,” Wickman said. “Senators in South Dakota and New Mexico have done it – more citizen involvement equals more action by their legislators.”