Finding Common Ground: Restoring a Small-Town Economy and National Forests to Health

By Bill Coates
Plumas County Supervisor

Economic and environmental interdependence

Situated in the northern Sierra Nevada, Plumas, Lassen and Sierra counties like many of their timber-dependent counterparts in the western United States, have seen their economic landscape change dramatically over the last decade. Reductions in federal timber volumes - the result of a combination of lawsuits, court orders and a shift in public attitudes - have translated into lost jobs, diminishing local tax bases and an uncertain future for the entire region.

During the 1980s, local loggers harvested an average of 200 million board-feet per year in the Plumas National Forest alone. By 1994, the annual harvest dropped to 50 million board-feet. It is expected to drop further to 28 million board-feet this year. Harvests from neighboring Lassen and Tahoe National Forests have experienced similar declines. A "way of life" was threatened and, like elsewhere, the threat pitted loggers and environmentalists against each other.

Name of Jurisdiction: Plumas County, California

Population: 21,000

Major Industries: Agriculture, forestry and tourism

Type: Rural

Major City: Quincy

Lead Organization: Quincy Library Group

Contact: Michael DeLasaux, University of California Cooperative Extension, 916/283-6270

Aggravating the situation further is poor forest health and the resultant threat of severe wildfire. Unfortunately, more than 80 years of effective firefighting has caused the forests to become choked with small brush - which goes up in flames like a torch.

Over the past 10 years, forest fires have doubled in both size and heat intensity and have become much more difficult to control. Now they burn so hot that the forest loses the trees it wants to keep. Smaller shade trees and brush flourish in their place and compete for soil nutrients and water, causing all of the trees to become very dry and less resistant to wildfire which once played a balancing role in the forest's natural cycle. The threat of fire puts residents' homes, animal habitats and the livelihood of the entire community at risk.

Things were bad enough in this region where timber receipts represent a significant portion of school and road budgets for Plumas, Lassen and Sierra counties - of which 75 percent, 54 percent and 59 percent respectively, are owned by the federal government. Then, in 1993, the U.S. Forest Service approved an interim plan to protect the California Spotted Owl that would further affect the productivity of the 2.5 million acres of forest land that rests in the three counties. It was time for a deeply divided community to put differences aside and come up with a survival plan.

Bringing diverse interests together

After more than fifteen years of intense animosity between logging interests and environmentalists, it was time to try to end the gridlock. Although we had been in different camps for a long time, we all knew each other pretty well from all of the fighting we had done. So, I called an informal meeting with Tom Nelson, director of timberlands for Sierra Pacific Industries, a major local employer, and Michael Jackson, a local environmental attorney and active member of the Friends of Plumas Wilderness. We met at the Quincy Library, a location selected for its neutrality, and began a series of discussions that would lead to an extraordinary collaboration of diverse interests.

At that first meeting of what would become known as the Quincy Library Group, we agreed that we needed to establish a planning process that would include a full range of community interests. We also established some ground rules for future discussions: First of all, no reporters would be invited to the meetings because we didn't want undue media attention and we wanted to avoid the potential for grandstanding; second, no Forest Service representatives would be invited because we all believed that the inclusion of federal bureaucracy would just aggravate frustrations, and finally, and perhaps most importantly, we agreed that future meetings would focus only on what we all agreed on.

And, in fact, we agreed on many things. For example, we all agreed that hospitals, roads, schools, and search and rescue services were critical to everyone seeking to enjoy the public land in the region. We also believed that local people could be counted on to make responsible decisions because they have a real interest in doing the right thing.

In addition, we strongly agreed that national planning wasn't working and that the 40-year old concepts of the "Smoky the Bear" campaign needed to be replaced with a "healthy forests, healthy streams" campaign that seeks to restore forests to presettlement conditions. It was also clear to all of us that small- and medium-sized trees and brush needed to be thinned out so that the forest can become more tolerant of fire. Unfortunately, the Forest Service was influenced early in its career by old European models of forestry in which fire doesn't play a large role in the forest's natural cycle. These models are not effective for the type of forests in the Pacific Northwest which need fire to remain healthy.

Collaborating for the future

Over the next year, the Quincy Library Group grew to more than 175 regular members. In an effort to generate maximum citizen input, it held a series of town hall-type meetings in all the communities throughout the area.

Eventually, the group hammered out a mutually-agreed- upon plan for the Feather River Watershed, which encompasses three national forests. A three-page community stability proposal was drafted and endorsed by an extraordinarily diverse mix of interests. Supervisors from the three counties, lumber companies, unions, local environmental groups, civic organizations, school and park districts, members of the Cattlemen's Association, and representatives of the University of California Cooperative Extension all signed on in support of the proposal's principles.

It's not often you find environmentalists and loggers in the same room saying 'Where do I sign?' The process was not always easy. Sometimes participants got so emotionally charged during the meetings, they'd storm out of the room. But, when it came right down to it, everybody had a voice in the process - an opportunity to bring their concerns to the table - and, eventually, all parties were able to agree on a plan to preserve their community, while agreeing to disagree on other issues. I know of no other jurisdiction that has come to an across-the-board agreement about the type of forestry that needs to be done.

Local solutions to local problems

The Quincy Library Group plan calls for treating 50,000 acres of forest land per year. At that pace, it will take 32 years to return the forests to the conditions in which they were found when the first wagon trains rolled west.

Highlights of the proposal include:

After successfully building local consensus on a highly volatile issue, it was time to invite the federal government to play a collaborative role. Last year, the Quincy Library Group presented its five-year conceptual management plan for the Feather River Watershed to the U.S. Congress, where it received almost unanimous, bi-partisan support. Both California senators and all of the area's congressional members are in favor of the plan. Unfortunately, moving the plan through the federal bureaucracy has been a slow go.

A community that feels it has proven that local problems can be solved at the local level, is now asking Congress to move on the task in a timely fashion. Congress has granted funding authority to thin out 400,000 acres per year on a million acres of forest land. But that process can be likened to mowing a lawn. If you mow eight feet each Saturday, by the time you work your way to the backyard, you have a disaster in the front yard.

So far, the Forest Service hasn't been able to act on the proposal. It has a budget process that starts four years before it comes to fruition, which keeps the agency bound to tedious, pedantic motion. Institutionally, the Forest Service may not have the heart or the finances to respond. It's ironic that when we have a big fire, the feds send out 50 specialists and an army of emergency personnel to help us out. If their going to work so hard once a fire starts, why don't they do it in advance and prevent the fire in the first place? The Quincy Library Group would like to have a fire incident command system in place without the fire.

Looking ahead

The Quincy Library Group continues to meet once a month despite pressure by certain national environmental and industry groups to break it up. While local interest groups are supportive of the plan, national groups tend to be more dogmatic in their agendas.

One can hardly tell who's who at the meetings anymore. In a community that used to be very divided, there is a great deal more trust and, consequently, more mixing. In addition, we're all more comfortable with each other's position - the result of the group's insistence on respect and tolerance.

After more than two years of hard work, the Quincy Library Group remains cohesive. But, one can never get "too comfortable" about its future. People will always have vast philosophical differences, so there's always a danger that the group will disband, which is why it is very important for us to keep our collaborative process intact and stay focused on our mission.


Advice to other jurisdictions

The Quincy Library Group believes its collaborative process is applicable to nearly any situation. Maintaining a balance of community interests, jobs interests and environmental interests can foster consensus on even the most volatile of issues.

The following advice is offered to other jurisdictions seeking unity on divisive matters:

  • Keep the process very open. Include everybody.
  • Start small and grow naturally.
  • In the early stages, talk about the things you do agree on and avoid press scrutiny.
  • Encourage mutual respect.
  • Keep the various interests balanced numerically at all times.
  • Invite the community to monitor and test the process. Keep no secrets.