The Lorax Lurks in Loyalton

I wrote this in reaction to an editorial in the San Francisco Chronicle. Coments and reactions welcome! _Jason E. Christian

1. Smoke, Science and Saws in the Sierra

"Here we go again," I thought, when I saw the picture accompanying the story in my local paper, from a news conference denouncing a bill in the U.S. Senate to adopt the Quincy Library Group's management plan for the Plumas, Lassen, and eastern Tahoe National Forests. In both our morning and afternoon paper I saw the same picture, of Tim Ingalsbee, Ph.D, identified as a scientist from the Westen Fire Ecology Center, resplendent in necktie, tight new braids, freshly trimmed bangs and mustache, explaining how firebreaks would increase fire danger, and that instead the government should be doing more prescribed burns.

The words seemed plausible. The western forest evolved with fire, a fact recognized in the legislation, which adopts as its goal "a desired future condition of all-age, multistory, fire resilient forests." Indeed, his preferred practice_the regular management under favorable conditions of prescribed burns, to reduce the fuel load of chapparal-type underbrush and dead wood_is being actively pursued: I noted with approval just such a fire a few miles outside Sierraville, in land covered by the Library Plan, a few weeks ago. And yet, I rolled my eyes, and groaned inwardly. Here we go again.

I groaned because I instantly thought of other scientists, just a week earlier, assuring the residents of Portola, a dozen miles to the north, amidst the Plumas National Forest, that dumping poison into their drinking water would do them no harm (and Monday backtracking when sick residents started showing up). I groaned because the Library Plan was the antithesis of the Department of Fish and Game's edicts in Portola: it had been negotiated, over many months, with input from environmentalists and industry representatives, and had been adopted by the local communities. It seemed a history of how scientific and local knowledge could be brought together in a political process. Yet now a competing group of scientists was attempting to arrogate authority over forest management, just downstream from the fish fiasco.

Imagine the "click" of a thousand magnets in Sierra and Plumas counties, attaching Dr. Ingalsbee's picture to the refrigerator, and the "skweetch-skweetch-skweetch" of a thousand felt pens, applying horns and rude commentary to the picture. But only a thousand: there simply aren't that many people living in Sierra and Plumas Counties. But boy are they mad.

They think their lives are being run by a bunch of flatlander intellectuals, bureaucrats, and long-haired hippies, if you can tell them apart, who don't care about them, who have their own agendas which ignore the lives of the people and families trying to hang on in the rural fringes of California, who make decisions without ever getting their hands dirty or feet wet, and without having to live with the consequences. They think the flatlander rulers are arrogant and ignorant, and boy are they mad.

This former long-haired hippy and bureaucrat (not at the same time!), and present flatlander intellectual, sees their point. There is probably merit to Dr. Ingalsbee's critiques, and the concerns in the Chronicle editorial October 21 about the various costs of the Plan seem well founded. But there remains a strong scent of arrogance, of ignorance about how things actually are, and a hint of dissimulation. Caring both about those communities, and about the surrounding wildlands, I worry about the potential harm done by a cocktail of dissimulation, ignorance and arrogance, and would propose to my fellow environmentalists another, possibly more fruitful, approach to the problem.

The bill in question will almost certainly pass and be signed into law. It was introduced in the house by the local Representative, Wally Herger (R-Chico), and passed the House with only one dissenting vote. Its authors in the Senate are Feinstein and Boxer (D-California). It has bipartisan support, and has now been sent to the Senate floor. My jerking knee approves these events, which is an unreliable guide to reality. However, although we may be inclined to cheer (or boo) events, it is worth reviewing how we got there, how the case against the proposal was made, with an eye to future debates about our interactions with the land and life around us.

2. Dissimulation and the Defense of the Forests of the Northern Sierra

Pending Senate legislation (S. 1028) adopts the Quincy Library Plan for the national forests of the Northern Sierra. It is opposed by the Sierra Club, other environmental organizations, and apparently some scientists, such as Dr. Tim Ingalsbee of the Western Fire Ecology Center. Their opposition cites questions of science, which the Chronicle endorses: its October 21 editorial states that "the `fire break' approach is highly questionable. Scientific studies have shown that aggressive logging can actually increase the risk of wildfire by leaving highly flammable slash in its aftermath, and allowing the growth of dense brush to replace the more fire-resistant trees." This argument seems likely to fail, as the legislation will probably pass the Senate, having passed the House with almost no dissent.

Objections to the Plan, while plausible, are tainted by dissimulation, ignorance, and arrogance. The charge of dissimulation comes out of my attempt to learn more about the scientific questions raised by the opponents, that were cited in the Chronicle editorial.

First, I searched the web for documents containing the phrases "Western Fire" and "Ecology Center," hoping to learn more about the work of the Western Fire Ecology Center, apparently a research center employing Dr. Ingalsbee, who seemed to be the source of the questions of science. This search produced a message from the Western Ancient Forest Campaign (WAFC) to "All Forest Activists," discussing strategies to stop S. 1028, and identifying a WAFC report "S. 1028: Outdated Policies that will Increase Fire Risk, Endanger Firefighters, and Harm Forest Ecosystems" by Tim Ingalsbee, "Ph.D. in fire ecology and Director of WAFC's Western Fire Ecology Center." The memo gives an address for WAFC on Vermont Avenue, Northwest, in Washington, DC, in a neighborhood better known for political advocacy groups than for forestry research facilities.

The report spells out in more detail the scientific concerns cited in the Chronicle editorial, based primarily on the assumption that prescribed burns would be proscribed, which would indeed be a Bad Thing. The solution: "the Forest Service should be instructed and fully funded to implement understory prescribed burning without commercial logging."

"Without commercial logging." I smelled the smoke of a prescribed burn just south of Sierraville earlier this month, and now I smell smoke again. Another memory smoulders: in the last couple of years the Sierra Club has opposed all logging in the national forests. Yet in the newspaper articles the Sierra Club spokesperson applauded the old timber management systems (which allowed logging), opposing S. 1028 on "scientific" grounds.

Next, I examined Dr. Ingalsbee's bibliography, a collection of technical-looking reports from reputable sources, although none in the peer-reviewed literature. There was nothing by Dr. Ingalsbee, although publication is a qualification for a practicing scientist, which is how Dr. Ingalsbee presents himself, as a "fire ecology educator for the last six years," who has "produced several publications and conference presentations on fire ecology and fire management issues."

Who is Dr. Ingalsbee? Using his name in the web search gave 42 documents, the second an article from the 2/9/96 University of Oregon student newspaper, with an intriguing lead, "Protesters heckle judge on decision," describing how fifty "activists from local environmental organizations" joined enthusiastically into a lecture by a Federal judge sponsored by the Christian Legal Society. The lead protestor-quote is from Ingalsbee himself: "The timber corporations could not have scripted it any better, and some argue that they did. What he's signed into law is fascist forestry."

Further investigation shows that Dr. Ingalsbee taught sociology last year at Humboldt State University, leading courses on "Forest Culture," "Social Movements," and "Field Methodology: Action Research." His academic specialty is "political ecology." While Dr. Ingalsbee certainly knows more about forest fires than I do, and while "political ecology" may well be a highly scientific branch of sociology, these are not the sorts of credentials that support a science-based attack on the Library Plan.

Hence the charge of dissimulation. The Sierra Club, and Dr. Ingalsbee or some other expert on fires and forest health, should argue for more emphasis on fire-ecology research, for accurate costing of tree-cutting and road-building activities and, if appropriate, that logging for firebreaks is a lie. But to persuade, first they must convince that their real agenda isn't simply to stop all logging (which is current Sierra Club policy). Second, they should produce credible science, and scientists, not a hard-core activist, employed by a political advocacy group, using a Ph.D. to claim expertise and scientific credibility to which he may or may not be entitled.

Instead, they produce only smoke, a poor substitute indeed for the white heat of scientific knowledge. Alas, ignorance begets ignorance. The next section concerns the ancestral ignorance.

3. Policy Analysis in a Blinding Smoke

Critics of the pending legislation (S. 1028) to enact the Quincy Library Group's management plan for the forests of the Northern Sierra have demonstrated an unfortunate mix of dissimulation, ignorance, and arrogance, which will interfere with the desirable goals of protecting the existing old forest and allowing the rest of the woodlands to grow into health.

The dissimulation is appalling and disrespectful. It also conceals ignorance, a common enough condition which may be corrected.

Press accounts suggest that the Library Group is trying to sneak in massive cutting of old forest. However, how much of the 2.5 million acres of forestis actually old forest? And how much of the old forest in the affected areas is susceptible to logging under the Library Plan?

I know the Plumas and Lassen forests less well than I know the Sierraville District of the Tahoe National Forest, and the answer for that area, at least, is "not much." That area was heavily logged from about the turn of the century through the 1960s, with timber supplying large mills in Truckee, Auburn and Grass Valley, as well as smaller mills in Sierraville and Loyalton in Sierra County. In addition, vast areas between Sierraville and Truckee burned in three huge fires, one started from a debris fire during the construction of Interstate 80 over Donner Summit in the early Sixties, the most recent the Cottonwood Fire of 1994. That fire burned to the edge of Loyalton.

There are no vast tracts of old forest in the region. Whether to provide timber for the flumes and mineshafts associated with the Virginia City silver industry, or for the little boxes on the hillsides of Daly City a century later, or through the carelessness of campers and contractors, the old forest is, with a few patches of exception, long gone. The question now is how to manage the wildland, the brush and second-growth trees, perhaps to allow, by the time of our great great great grandchildren, something resembling the old forest to re-emerge. This is not about protecting the sacred and long-gone groves of tall trees.

Of course, the ignorance may be mine, and as far as the Plumas and Lassen National Forests are concerned, I have plenty. Nonetheless, these are not areas to which logging has come recently. Westwood (in the Lassen Forest) was once the source of the wooden crates used to ship oranges around the country and world; the box factory at Graeagle, before the golf courses came, supplied the peach, plum and grape industries. Mills at Quincy, Sloat, Greenville and Oroville, among others, were active for many decades. Logging roads criss-cross the region. There are certainly old trees in the region, and a few old groves. If there are vast stretches of old forest, they demonsrate my ignorance.

The absence of substantial tracts of old forest is critical to an understanding of the Library Plan. Second-growth land is not thefire-resistant parkland of the old forest. Rather, it is a tinderbox of slashpiles, dense insect-susceptible single-species stands, land loaded with fuel ready to lead a ground fire up into the crowns and across the landscape. The prescribed burning south of Sierraville demonstrates the work necessary before the first fire can be started: workers must thin the woodland, put the fuel down on the ground where it will burn more slowly, open up the space around the trees so that the fire burns along the ground, not up in the trees. Presumably the fire ecologists and forest managers can describe, or can learn, these techniques. The point is that, at least initially, this way of managing the trees, which may help transform the collection of trees into a forest, is not costless, it requires human intervention, and it almost certainly involves bringing chainsaws into the (future) forest. Pretending that the second-growth woodlands can be maintained using the same precise techniques, and at the same cost, as in an existing old forest in a national park is simply ignorant.

Once one accepts the fundamental fact, that the woodlands of the Northern Sierra are, for the most part, second growth forest, much of the emotion leaves the argument against the Library Plan, to be replaced by a sobering realization of how little is actually known. The critics point out, with reason, that forest managers don't really know how to prevent catastrophic crown fires through the use of ridgetop logged firebreaks. At the same time, the forest managers (and their critics) don't know, either, how to use prescribed burning to guide a logged-once landscape back towards healthy forest. Ignorance is, indeed, rampant. Happily, we are a curious species, and can sometimes acknowledge our ignorance, and in so doing begin to learn. All we require is a little humility...leavened with a dollop of research funding.

4. The Lorax was Arrogant, but not Ignorant

"Mister!" he said with a sawdusty sneeze,
"I am the Lorax. I speak for the trees.
I speak for the trees, for the trees have no tongues.
And I'm asking you, sir, at the top of my lungs"_
he was very upset as he shouted and puffed_
"What's that THING you've made out of my Truffula tuft?"

_T.S. Giesel (Dr. Suess)

The Quincy Library Group got together several years ago, as an effort by local environmentalists and timber interests to get together and talk, act as and within their community. Extensive argument, often heated, ensued, and eventually a plan was developed that moved away from the clearcut-and-plant paradigm of the tree-farm, seeking instead "a desired future condition of all-age, multistory, fire resilient forests." What a rich sentence that is: timber industry representatives signed on to a description that might come out of Callenbach's Ecotopia, a forest like the one that we have, now, already destroyed. I don't know, and I suspect that the scientists don't know, whether the ridge-top firebreaks and selective logging can recreate that condition. Nor do I know whether the opponents of the Library Plan have another plan (although there are vague mutterings about prescribed burns, an activity which does not obviously conflict with the Library Plan), nor whether such plans are blessed by the scientific consensus that the Library Plan allegedly lacks. There is, indeed, ignorance aplenty.

The difficulty is that while the Library Plan acknowledges the prevailing state of ignorance, and seeks to do something about it (the legislation is "To direct the Secretary of Agriculture to conduct a pilot project..."), its opponents assert that they know better, that their science is better than the Library Group's science, that the political process is flawed and that the administrative and technocratic decisions of the Forest Service are better, and that the so-called environmentalists of Quincy have sold out. Whew. We know better than you do, so just shut up. I am the Lorax, I speak for the trees.

It is fair enough to point out that the environmentalists of Quincy may not adequately represent the environmentalists of Davis or Detroit, and that the forests are a national resource. It is fair enough to insist that the Quincy environmentalists may not adequately represent the California Spotted Owl constituency, and to identify other participants that ought to join in future incarnations of the Library Group (although some language from the bill, "All spotted owl habitat areas and protected activity centers located within the pilot project area designated under subsection (b)(2) will be deferred from resource management activities required under subsection (d) and timber harvesting during the term of the pilot project," suggests that somehow the advice of the Lorax was occasionally heeded). What is not fair, what is, in fact, arrogant, is to denounce the political process by which various concerns were heard and addressed (although, no doubt, imperfectly), and to demand a return to the old ways of Forest Service edict. The opponents have donned the mantle of the Fish-and-Game scientists: "we know what's best, although it may or may not be best for you, and that is the way it is. We have studied the issue, and we are convinced." Such is arrogance.

It doesn't have to be that way. Rather than declaring bureaucratic war, denying the right of local communities to a powerful voice in policy that effects them, the environmental community, the self-appointed Lorax, might seek a seat at the council table, engage itself in the political process, find and convince local allies, and help build a democratic environmentalism. In so doing, they might win. They won, once, in this area: in the mid-1970s a proposal by the Disney Corporation, to build a ski resort complex at Independence Lake, in the Sierraville District of the Tahoe National Forest, was defeated not in the Forest Service regional headquarters in San Francisco, but in heated arguments in Downieville, Loyalton and Truckee, carried by an alliance of Bay Area conservationists and hunters, fishermen, ranchers and hikers in the mountain valleys of Nevada and Sierra Counties.

It turns out that the Lorax is a local.

5. Sierra Club Take A Hike

That was the bumpersticker on the back of a beat-up pickup truck, parked next to a logging truck in Loyalton, just before the outbreak of the Independence Lake War. I offer it, in a friendlier spirit than possessed the logger, as guidance for environmentalist participation in future management of the forests of California. My logger neighbor no doubt was hoping that the Sierra Club would get lost on its hike. As certificate of my good wishes, I offer very specific instructions for the Sierra Club's next hike, based on a sense that the Sierra Club did get lost, and wishes to find its way again.

The hike should be in Sierra, Plumas or Lassen Counties, it should pass beneath the tall trees of an old forest, it should offer a view of the life and death of the forest. And the hikers should come again and again, buy their groceries in Quincy or Portola or Graeagle or Loyalton or Sierra City. They should, perhaps, spend the night in Quincy or Greenville or Chester or Susanville. Perhaps some of the hikers will have a chance to talk with some of the people who live up there, read the local papers, walk through the quiet streets of the towns. The Lorax knows the trees; to speak for the trees one must meet the trees of Plumas, Lassen and Sierra, see them as the snow leaves in the spring, camp under them in the summer, bring your skis in the winter. Don't be a stranger, come and stay a bit. And in staying, find your way to the Quincy Library.

I cannot describe a hike through the old forest of the Sierraville District of the Tahoe National Forest, nor anywhere in the Plumas or Lassen Forests. Instead, Take a Hike through the relic forest atop Peck's Ridge, extending a mile south of the Plumas Forest in the Downieville district of the Tahoe National Forest. The grove is atop the Sierra crest, just west of Upper Salmon Lake. A decent (although inaccurate, as noted below) map is the Gold Lake map in the USGS 7.5-minute series of topo maps.

Start your day at Bassets Station, at the corner of Highway 49 and the Gold Lake Road, about 5 miles north of Sierra City. It's morning, so you can't have the outstanding hamburgers served there. Perhaps you have left a car, or a mountain bike, at Upper Salmon Lake, which is one place to end your hike. Eat some breakfast at Bassets, buy some postcards, be polite, leave your arrogance locked up in the car. After making a modest contribution to the local economy, drive a couple of miles up the Gold Lake Road to the Packer Lake turnoff, crossing the bridge to your left, then bearing right towards Packer Lake. Before you arrive at Packer Lake (a resort with a good restaurant), you will see a sign for the Pacific Crest Trail, heading north to Deer Lake. This is your trailhead.

The trail climbs steadily but not sharply north, through trees, brush, and glacial rock, with some spectacular views of the Sierra Buttes to the southwest. You can jog past Deer Lake, a rather austere basin near the crest, or follow the Pacific Crest Trail markers to the northeast, to a saddle southwest of Upper Salmon Lake. That's about two miles from the trailhead, at about 7,100 feet. If you go to Deer Lake, you may wish to ignore the topo map, which (1) puts the Pacific Crest Trail west of the crest and (2) identifies a trail going north from Deer Lake. These are both false. Go east and a little north from the campsite midway up the east shore of Deer Lake to pick up the short trail from the saddle above Salmon Lake.

I call the ridge north of that saddle Peck's Ridge, although it is not marked as such on the map. Peck's Mine is a closed-up shaft about halfway up the ridge from Salmon Lake to the crest, and about halfway from the saddle where you stand to the saddle where you are going. Yes, Mine: this is not wilderness; this land has felt the loving hands of English-speaking humans since the early days of the Gold Rush.

The Pacific Crest Trail goes gently up to the west for a quarter mile, then turns north again, more or less following the contours above cliffs on the east face of Peck's Ridge. One sees below Horse Lake, the tent cabins of the resort at Salmon Lake, and Upper and Lower Salmon Lake. The longer view to the east is of the Mills Peak area, the trees sparser from what appears to have been a successful selective-logging operation. It is an easy scramble to the high point of the ridge, from which one has views from Mount Lola in the south to Table Mountain outside Oroville in the west and Mount Elwell in the north; behind Elwell is Eureka Peak, the mountain on the Great Seal of the Great State of California. Return to the trail and continue north, where the ridge opens into a gentle north-facing shoulder.

On this flatter ground the trees long ago took hold, and suddenly one is there. The light slants down between the enormous white fir, trees which are a dozen or more yards apart. Some places the canopy is broken, where a tree blew over, and in the sunlight younger fir trees race each other to the open sky. If there is a breeze, the organ of this cathedral plays gloriously. Say not that the forest is silent, say rather that the noise is the sublime music of something older and grander than you.

It's okay if you brought your arrogance from the car with you, for it is here that it is blown away.

After only a half mile, the trail comes to a dense little stand of adolescent firs, and turns northwest. If you follow it, you will shortly emerge into a selective cut that didn't work. Now you are in the Plumas Forest in the domain of the Library Plan. A quarter of a century ago, the professional foresters, using the best available science, cut some of the trees, hoping to leave behind a living forest. They knew that each tree provides some windbreak for every other tree, and hoped to leave enough standing so that the forest would survive. Alas, their computations were inexact, the windstorm came, the forest blew down. Walk sadly through the limits of our science, until finally you meet the jeep trail that runs south, west of the crest of the ridge, through more forest, some virgin, some logged well, more logged badly, to the Packer Lake Saddle, and the big road which you can follow back down to your car.

I don't go that way. When the trail turns northwest, I turn northeast, and walk another half-mile through the open park of the ancient forest, until it opens into the scree and glacial rock of the saddle that divides the Upper Salmon Lake basin from the Gold Lake basin. I look down at Gold Lake, remember the fraud that gave the lake its name, and ended up with two lynched 19th-century liars, and am grateful that PG&E traded its holdings around the lake for timberland elsewhere. Then, east of the saddle, I look carefully for the cairns, one stone atop another, that mark the trail that gently descends across the south-facing slope, through meadow and glade to the white canvas at Salmon Lake. There is a trail around the north shore of the lake to the road, where you may have left your bike or car.

The Peck's Ridge grove is small, only about three square miles. There are, no doubt, other such little relics of forest glory in the region, that are all worth fighting for. But they must first be known, their local Loraxes found. These little parks may be kept, as models perhaps for a future forest of our dreams, but they will only be kept if there is a local constituency, if the Lorax can speak up in Quincy, Chester and Loyalton.

Please, Sierra Club, take a hike, learn our groves, and quit aiming that Super Axe Hacker at the knees of the sharpish-voiced men and women, fighting the good fight out in the rural fringes of California.