Touring the scarred neighborhoods of
His words recalled the timber wars of the 1990s, when conservative politicians and out-of-work loggers blamed environmentalists for court rulings and a thicket of regulations that silenced chainsaws in many Western forests to protect the spotted owl and other threatened wildlife.
Now Zinke and Agriculture Secretary
These days, however, the Trump administration's words ring hollow in many of
Litigation has largely given way to cooperation. Timber industry officials say they've found common ground with environmental groups to thin out overgrown forests and reduce fire hazards. While forestry project approvals can take years -- and hundreds of thousands of acres of acres still need to be thinned -- logging advocates say the Trump administration's argument is outdated in
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"To me, it represented a lack of understanding of the dynamics of what's going on here on the ground in
"In many respects, some of our timber wars are over," Gordon said. "People are working at the table."
'A healthier forest'
Litigation doesn't occur on every project -- not by a long shot.
That was true even a decade ago, when suspicions ran higher between loggers and environmentalists. A
Environmental groups are even less likely to sue now, given there's growing agreement that
Scientists say the nation's century-long practice of fighting all wildfires left
For years, there was little agreement on how to manage the forests better. The logging industry pushed for cutting down large trees, which are more valuable commercially but are also desirable to keep standing because they are more resistant to fire. Environmentalists were suspicious of any major effort to trim the forests, arguing projects were little more than clear cuts and timber sales in disguise.
Nowadays, many scientists, forestry officials and environmentalists agree that some mix of selective logging, clearing and carefully "prescribed" fires is needed to return the forests to some semblance of health.
"There's sort of a sweet spot," said
To get a glimpse of the new world of forestry in
At about 7,000 feet, you'll find hard-hat crews trimming branches, yanking out brush and felling trees on either side of the road. Stacks of limbs, branches and brush pile up, and they will be deliberately burned over the winter.
This isn't clear cutting. Larger fire-resistant trees are spared, while the smaller trees come down. The idea is to create a 20-mile "fuel break" on each side of the road that will dramatically slow any fire that comes through, giving firefighters a better chance of containment.
"This will be a healthier forest," said
A former labor organizer, Wilensky said efforts to clean up the Eldorado forest began 15 years ago, when he'd just been elected to the
"Everyone agreed we had a fire hazard," Wilensky said.
Before long, the group secured
One of its earliest projects thinned shrubs and small trees around the communities of
"This was once one of the most litigated parts of the Sierra; no work was going on," Wilensky said as the chainsaws droned along the north side of
"This ain't logging, but it's basically the same thing," he said as co-workers chainsawed through a cluster of trees six inches wide. "If
The projects helped; when fires did ignite, the project areas generally "showed decreases in active fire behavior and effects," an independent scientific panel wrote in a 2013 report.
Yet it wasn't all smooth sailing. Environmental groups from outside the Quincy group filed protests and lawsuits to block some of the projects, arguing they were mainly targeting large, old-growth trees whose removal wouldn't reduce fire hazards. The
The protests stunned many in the Quincy group. "Maybe we were naive," said Quincy veteran
Now, as the next generation of forest projects emerges, Wilensky fears that harsh rhetoric from the Trump administration could imperil the hard-won detente between loggers and environmentalists while so much more needs to be done.
"We'll be back in litigation if Zinke has his way," he said. "It makes me sick to think of it. He ought to come out and pay a visit."
Red tape, spotted owls
The Trump administration insists that environmentalists' lawsuits and other protests have gummed up efforts to improve forest health. "We have been held hostage by these environmental terrorist groups ... that have refused to allow harvest of timber," Zinke told conservative
Zinke's press office cited a plan by the
Along similar lines,
In at least one case, the so-called Gemmill thinning project in the
The Gemmill project, initially approved by the agency in 2011, called for thinning more than 1,100 acres of forest near the community of Wildwood. Environmental groups took the
The fire burned up a portion of the area scheduled for thinning, including "845 acres of northern spotted owl nesting, roosting and foraging habitat," according to a report compiled earlier this year by the
In any event, she said the litigation was the right thing to do -- and she might file another suit if the
She believes some forest thinning can help reduce fire risk, but only in the immediate vicinity of people's homes. She also says some deliberate "prescribed burns" can be helpful, too.
Beyond that, she's ready to resist "an unholy alliance between the
"I'm not going to apologize for any lawsuit I've filed and I'm going to continue to file them if I believe they're necessary," Boggs said.
Boggs' group has a mixed record on litigation. Of the 11 lawsuits she's filed the past six years, one resulted in a court order halting a project altogether: a proposed timber salvage on hundreds of acres of critical spotted owl habitat in an area of the
Regardless of outcome, Trump administration officials say the mere threat of lawsuits from groups like Boggs' worsens the volume of red tape, leading to delays in getting projects done.
For instance, it can take the
"That's all well and good but we're seeing the King Fire, the Rim Fire -- all these fires -- destroying numerous owl (habitats)," Branham said, citing two of the biggest fires to rip through owl country in the past five years. "We're losing the very habitat that these processes are designed to protect."
A new kind of thinking
Yet he's advocating for more chainsaws in the woods, through his work with Yosemite Stanislaus Solutions, a group of environmentalists and loggers attempting to reduce fire risks in the region around
The group's members, who first convened in 2010, were wary about working together -- until the disastrous
"That kind of cemented my sense of the forests in the Sierra as really overgrown," Koepele said.
The group is now planning a project that will thin about 1,000 acres of forest east of
"Before I lived in the foothills and became more closely acquainted with forests, I would have been skeptical of something like this," said Koepele, who moved to
"That's my evolution. I think there's a quite a bit of that among environmental groups in the Sierra."
That kind of thinking has carried over to the highest levels of state government.
The new law allocates
Branham of Brown's
"It's happening at a time when there's not many places where the state of
Editor's note (
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