Scientific Plan On Forest Management Altered

NOTE: The following is one of a series of case studies produced by the Union of Concerned Scientists' Scientific Integrity Program between 2004 and 2010 to document the abuses highlighted in our 2004 report, Scientific Integrity in Policy Making.

In an incident involving the management of national forests, the George W. Bush administration created a "review team" made up of predominantly nonscientists1 who proceeded to overrule the Sierra Nevada Framework, a $12 million science-based plan for managing old-growth forest habitat and reducing the risk of fire in 11 national forests. The Framework, which was adopted by the Clinton administration in 2001 after nine years of research by more than 100 scientists from the Forest Service and academia, had been viewed by the experts who reviewed it as an exemplary use of credible science in forest policy.2

The Bush administration's proposed changes to the plan included harvesting more of the largest trees, which may double or triple harvest levels over the first 10 years of the plan.3 Other changes call for relaxing restrictions on cattle grazing in some areas where the original plan significantly reduced grazing due to the potentially critical impact on sensitive species.

Forest Service officials justified these changes in part by stating that the original plan relies too much on prescribed burning and would fail to "effectively protect the general forest areas from fire."4 Indeed, ecologically sustainable thinning that minimizes risks to threatened and endangered species may also be an appropriate tool for reducing risk of catastrophic fire in these forests.5 The Forest Service claims that these changes are "grounded in the best available scientific information."6 However, a scientific review panel put together by the Forest Service found that the revisions failed to consider key scientific information regarding fire, impacts on forest health, and endangered species.7

1. Author interviews with Jay Watson, former regional director of the Wilderness Society, February 2004, and Emily Roberson, California Native Plant Society, October 2003. See also
2. U.S. Forest Service. September 2003. Science Consistency Review Report, Draft Supplemental Environmental Impact Statement,  Sierra Nevada Forest Plan Amendment.
3. U.S. Forest Service, Pacific Southwest Region. March 18, 2003. Press release, "Top Forest Service Official in State Accepts Sierra Nevada Review Recommendation, Starts Environmental Analysis Process." Estimates of the timber harvest for the first decade under the revised plan are 448 million board feet, whereas the timber harvest under the original plan was estimated at 157 million board feet. The difference is due to a relaxation of the rules regarding the diameter of harvestable trees, from 20 inches under the original plan to 30 inches under the proposed revisions.
4. Pacific Southwest Regional Forester Jack Blackwell, as quoted in U.S. Forest Service press release, March 18, 2003.
5. Personal communication from two members of the Science Consistency Review Team responsible for reviewing the draft SEIS, names withheld on request, March 2004.
6. U.S. Forest Service Sierra Nevada Forest Plan Amendment, Final Supplemental Environmental Impact Statement, Record of Decision, January 2004. Online at
7. U.S. Forest Service. September 2003. Science Consistency Review Report, Draft Supplemental Environmental Impact Statement, Sierra Nevada Forest Plan Statement Amendment.

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