New direction for Sierra Nevada forests
Prompted by concerns about the health of the Sierra Nevada, Congress requested in 1993 that the entire ecosystem be reviewed by a panel of independent scientists. The result was the $6.6 million Sierra Nevada Ecosytem Project (SNEP). Led by UC Davis water resources specialist Don Erman, the approximately 140 scientists who analyzed existing knowledge of the Sierra Nevada delivered the SNEP report to Congress in 1996.
While Congress has done little with the SNEP report, it has had far-reaching consequences for the Sierra Nevada. Notably, SNEP led to fundamental changes in the way the U.S. Forest Service manages the region's 11 national forests, which encompass 13 million acres. SNEP concluded that one reason for the Sierra Nevada's troubles is that conservation issues cross the boundaries of individual forests and land ownerships. Accordingly, rather than managing these 11 forests individually, the Forest Service is developing a rangewide plan designed to protect and restore the land as well as to provide benefits for people. This new approach is called the Sierra Nevada Framework for Conservation and Collaboration, or Framework for short.
“We are heading towards broader, ecosystem management with sustainability of all resources as our primary motivating force,” says Chris Holmes, a Forest Service spokesman in Washington DC. “We will work across the whole landscape in the Sierra Nevada and coordinate with nonfederal lands.”
One of the first steps of the Framework was the 1998 Sierra Nevada Science Review. Based on SNEP and other current scientific information, seven scientists at the Forest Service's Pacific Southwest Research Station identified the most urgent rangewide conservation issues for national forests in the Sierra Nevada.
Based on the Science Review, the Forest Service is developing an Environmental Impact Statement (EIS), which is due out this summer. “Many of the forest plans are out-of-date and inconsistent,” says Sacramento-based Framework EIS team leader Steve Clauson. “We are bringing the plans up-to-date in five problem areas.” These areas are old-growth forests; aquatic, riparian and meadow ecosystems; fire and fuels management; oak woodlands in the western foothills; and noxious weeds.
One instance of inconsistency in Sierra Nevada forest management is riparian standards. The EIS management plan amendments will require analyzing the cumulative effects of the many factors that affect the health of riparian ecosystems, which incude the width of buffer zones and the capacity of roads to withstand torrential rains. Another instance of inconsistency is the conservation plans for carnivores such as fishers, which are declining in part due to the fragmentation of the old-growth forests where they live. By coordinating the forest plans, the EIS amendments will help ensure that corridors link the fishers' habitat throughout the Sierra Nevada.
Ultimately, the Framework will go beyond the EIS and address issues ranging from conserving biodiversity to recreation to timber management. To help coordinate the research needed to make sound management decisions, the Sierra Nevada Network for Education and Research will be established at UC Merced, which is expected to open 2005.
While the Framework's goal is finding cooperative solutions to wildlands issues throughout the Sierra Nevada, some stakeholders are feeling left out. “The [EIS] amendments will cover five wide-ranging issues that will affect everything including economics. Economics was not part of the dialogue and we think that's wrong,” says John Hofmann, vice president of governmental affairs of the California Forestry Association, a trade association representing about 70% of California's timber interests.
The Forest Service is developing a rangewide plan for managing all of the Sierra Nevada's 11 national forests.
Since 1993, the forestry industry has been subject to the interim guidelines designed to protect the California spotted owl. Intended to be in place for only 2 years, the rules are not suited for long-term management. For instance, a given stand of trees can be entered only once. And while the Forest Service develops the Framework, the forestry industry continues to wait for resolution. “We're caught between a rock and a hard place — we want to get out from under the interim guidelines but we want the plan done right,” says Hofmann, adding, “We have a lot of confidence in the Forest Service folks locally and will work with them throughout the process.”
SNEP findings: Why the Sierra Nevada is in peril
The SNEP team was charged with three tasks: assessing the existing information on the Sierra Nevada, examining alternative management strategies and framing these strategies “to maintain the health and sustainability of this ecosystem while providing resources to meet human needs,” says SNEP team leader Don Erman of UC Davis.
The SNEP team's major findings included that aquatic ecosystems, old-growth forests and oak woodlands in the western foothills are imperiled. Amphibians and small forest-dwelling carnivores such as fishers and martens have declined greatly, non-native plants and animals are invading the Sierra Nevada, and people are moving to the largely privately owned foothills in unprecedented numbers.
While the SNEP team agreed that these were major threats to the health of the Sierra Nevada, there was little consensus on the best way to address them. In many cases, this is due to gaps in our basic knowledge of the diverse ecosystems that comprise the Sierra Nevada. The many questions about old-growth forests alone include: What was the structure of forests historically? What structural standards should we use for old-growth forests? And once we set those standards, what fire regimes should we use to achieve them?
While it is not clear exactly how to manage the Sierra Nevada, it is clear that we have to do something. The SNEP team predicted unless we actively address these problems, they will just keep getting worse.
As the SNEP report concluded, “Left unresolved is the question of whether our society has the will and the capability to correct such problems. Implementation of new approaches or possible solutions is the responsibility of the public and its institutions. The beginning is to acknowledge that problems exist: willing minds and able hands can find solutions.”
The U.S. Forest Service's Sierra Nevada Framework for Conservation and Collaboration is a good first step to solving the mountain range's problems.
Framework EIS team leader Steve Clauson responds that the Forest Service has listened to forest industry concerns and that Sierra Nevada-wide management will balance the needs of all stakeholders insofar as they are compatible with conservation goals. “The Framework is the best thing to do for the forests — it's long overdue,” agrees Framework staff member Steve Waterman.