The Quincy Library Group: So-Called “Consensus” Forest Plan Lacks Consensus, Violates Rights

Since the House of Representatives approved the Quincy Library Group Forest Recovery and Economic Stability Act of 1997 (H.R. 858) by an overwhelming margin last July, many have hailed the process that created the bill as a model for resolving other forest management disputes. If the Quincy Library Group (QLG) process is a model for such disputes, however, it is a model of what not to do.

H.R. 858 and its Senate companion bill, S. 1028 (currently attached to S. 1079) would establish a five-year forest management pilot project within the Plumas, Lassen, and Tahoe National Forests in California. Among other things, the project would: 1) require 40,000 to 60,000 acres of strategic fuel reduction (the harvesting of dead and diseased trees) in fire-prone areas each year; 2) require special efforts to protect riparian areas (areas in or near surface water), including the creation of wide protection zones; 3) require selective harvesting techniques to achieve multiple-age, multistory, varied species forests; and 4) ban all logging in certain environmentally-sensitive areas.

The culmination of five years of work by the Quincy Library Group, a group of local environmentalists, governmental officials and foresters in Northern California, H.R. 858/S. 1028 has been hailed as a locally-driven “consensus” approach to forest management. Large timber companies like the plan because they believe it offers them some degree of certainty, permitting them to harvest timber without fear of the kind of incessant administrative appeals and legal challenges by environmentalists that have delayed operations and driven up costs in the past. Local environmentalists like the plan because it would establish environmental restrictions that may not otherwise be possible.

But not every one is happy with the QLG bill, nor does the initiative appear to enjoy the kind of local consensus its advocates claim it does.

The Myth of Local Consensus

The Quincy Library Group was established in 1992 when a forester, a county supervisor and a local environmental activist began meeting in the public library in Quincy, California to negotiate a way out of the so-called “timber wars.” The timber wars, the longstanding dispute between foresters and environmentalists over management of National Forests in Northern California and the Pacific Northwest, had increasingly come to be viewed as an obstacle to both local economic stability and environmental quality. The QLG meetings eventually grew to include as many as 175 people, though less than 30 people have been regular participants in the meetings.

But the fact that local citizens participated in the QLG does not, in and of itself, mean that the group — or the product of their efforts, the Quincy Library Group Forest Recovery and Economic Stability Act of 1997 (H.R. 858/S.1028) — represents a local consensus. Some 50,000 people reside in the three-county, 2.5-million acre area covered by the QLG proposal. Yet, fewer than 30 people were regular participants in QLG process.

Certainly, ranchers disagree with the assertion that the QLG bill represents a local consensus. They oppose the measure because it appears to grant the Forest Service sweeping new authority to violate established water rights and to limit or even terminate grazing within the pilot project area during the term of the program.

Grazing and Water Rights Placed in Jeopardy

At the center of the ranchers’ dispute with the QLG is a document entitled “Viability Assessments and Management Considerations for Species Associated with Late-Successional and Old Growth Forests of the Pacific Northwest.” The publication is a Forest Service document drafted in 1993 by a Scientific Analysis Team (SAT) led by Dr. Jack Ward Thomas, an elk biologist who had been selected as Director of the U.S. Forest Service by President Clinton as the Administration began to phase out tree harvest in National Forests. Although the SAT report was written to address specific environmental challenges in Pacific Northwest National Forests, it was nonetheless incorporated into the QLG proposal which deals with entirely different National Forests.

There are several provisions of the SAT guidelines that have ranchers particularly worried. For one thing, Section GM-1 stipulates that grazing practices be adjusted to “eliminate adverse effects of domestic and wild ungulates [hoofed animals] on riparian resources.” If these efforts are not effective, the guidelines call for the elimination of grazing “until it is shown that grazing can be reestablished and still attain Riparian Management Objectives.” The problem with this is that the Riparian Management Objectives are so vaguely written, any one of a number of the objectives — which number ten in all — could be used as a pretext for ending grazing. For example, objective 9 of the guidelines requires the Forest Service to “maintain or restore habitat to support populations of well-distributed native and desired non-native plant, vertebrate, and invertebrate populations that contribute to the viability of riparian-dependent communities.” The wording here raises many questions: What is meant by “well-distributed” plant, vertebrate and invertebrate populations? How is viability determined? What are “desired” non-native plants? Who determines whether the habitats must be maintained or restored and how is this determined? All of these terms are so subjective that management decisions can be totally arbitrary and capricious.

The uncertainty over what the riparian objectives actually mean greatly expands the Forest Service’s power to ban grazing during the five years of the pilot project. After all, with the objectives so ill-defined, how can one prove that the objectives are being met?

By granting the Forest Service these expanded powers, the QLG bill could prove devastating to local ranchers.

Dick O’Sullivan is one rancher who would be particularly vulnerable to a ban on grazing.

“In addition to me, my wife, son and son-in-law work on the ranch,” said O’Sullivan, who depends on grazing in Lassen National Forest for most of his 600 head of cattle. “We pay my son and son-in-law only $1,200 per month each, and my wife and I don’t even take a draw any more. That’s how close to the margin this operation is.”

People with the least financial resources and least able to fight have been targeted by environmentalists all across the county. These ranchers, farmers, miners and foresters are not being forced off the land by changing national and world economic trends, but rather by ever-increasing environmental regulations.

Advocates of the QLG bill argue that ranchers needn’t be concerned with the SAT guideline provisions as they only apply to timber operations. But H.R. 858 stipulates that SAT guidelines “for riparian system protection shall apply to all resource management activities” and “all timber harvesting activities that occur in the pilot project area.”

Grazing rights are not, however, the only beef ranchers have with the SAT guidelines included in the QLG proposal. Legally-binding water rights are also at stake.

The SAT guidelines would establish Riparian Habitat Conservation Areas (RHCA), which are buffer zones designed to protect or improve the conditions of aquatic and semi-aquatic habitats. For fish-bearing streams, lakes and flowing non-fish-bearing streams, the buffer zones could extend up to 300 horizontal feet. For ponds, reservoirs and wetlands more than one acre in size, they could extend 150 horizontal feet. For seasonally-flowing streams, smaller wetlands, and landslide areas, the zones could extend up to 200 horizontal feet. In any event, only activities that “contribute to improving or maintaining watershed and aquatic habitat conditions” would be permitted in the RHCAs. Since the presence of cattle for grazing — or indeed for any other purpose — arguably doesn’t meet these conditions, the Forest Service could require that the cattle be removed from the RHCAs. This would deny ranchers access to water used for their cattle in the process.

Foresters Incur Obligations Without Privileges

Foresters may also pay a heavy price if the QLG bill becomes law. Although local environmentalists have always had the option of withdrawing from the QLG and resuming their efforts to stall logging operations, they haven’t done so thus far because they fear losing the hard-won concessions they have already obtained from the timber industry. But if the QLG bill is approved by the Senate and signed into law by the President, this fear may well dissipate.

The QLG bill explicitly states: “Nothing in this section exempts the pilot project from any federal environmental law.” This means that some of the concessions made by local environmentalists during the QLG process could conceivably be deemed null and void. The concessions made by foresters, on the other hand, would still be law. Thus, through H.R. 858/S.1028, foresters could incur new environmental obligations while gaining no privileges in return. There is every reason to believe that more radical environmental groups will continue to file appeals and seek injunction against any short-term agreements “gained” by timber through the QLG.

Current Status of the Bill

The Quincy Library Forest Recovery and Economic Stability Act (H.R. 858) was approved by the House of Representatives by an overwhelming 429-1 vote last July. The Senate, however, has yet to vote on the measure. Now attached to an Indian gaming bill (S. 1079), the Senate version of the QLG proposal (S. 1028) appears to be in some trouble: At the behest of national environmental groups, three Senators — Democrats Patrick Leahy (VT), Barbara Boxer (CA) and Paul Wellstone (MN) — have placed legislative “holds” on the bill. A hold indicates that a Senator has serious reservations about a bill and plans to wage a floor fight if the bill is brought to the floor.

Unlike local environmental groups, most national environmental groups actively oppose the QLG proposal. Some of these groups oppose the bill due to sincere policy differences. The Sierra Club, for example, advocates a “no cut” policy in the nation’s National Forests and thus is duty-bound to oppose any bill that permits trees in National Forests to be cut. Other groups, however, may oppose the bill because they fear it could serve as a model for forest management disputes throughout the nation, shifting environmental decision-making from Washington where national environmental groups have muscle to the local level where they don’t. Such a shift could not only place the environmental movement’s agenda at risk, but also threaten their fundraising base, as environmental donors would quickly refocus their giving to where the action is.

A Bad Model

The shortcomings of the Quincy Library Group bill speak volumes about the process that created it. The QLG was dominated by timber interests and environmentalists. Not surprisingly, the end product reflected timber industry and environmentalist values and objectives.

It should be noted that the largest timber corporation in the state of California was the driving force behind the plan, almost assuredly at the expense of scores of small timber companies and saw mills.

QLG advocates claim that a forest management proposal more to the cattlemen’s liking could have been produced if only cattlemen had taken a more active role in the QLG. The QLG, its proponents argue, was open to all. Even if this were the case — and some people dispute this — cattlemen had little incentive to participate in the QLG because they were told that the group would not address grazing issues. It simply made no sense for cattlemen, some of whom had to travel two hours or more by car to participate in the meetings, to continue committing time to a process that had nothing to do with them. Given the outcome of the QLG process, perhaps it would have been wise for ranchers to take a more active role. But hindsight is always 20/20: Ranchers could not have predicted that the QLG would so readily violate its promise to keep grazing off the table. One of the most respected ranchers in Northern California served on the executive steering committee of the QLG for a number of years until he was told all grazing issues had been tabled.

While the idea of devolving environmental decision-making to the local level is a good one, “consensus” groups like the QLG may not be the best means of achieving this objective. For one thing, politicians may see in these groups a valuable political tool to avoid responsibility and accountability for environmental decisions. By deferring to these groups, politicians can avoid making the tough decisions while availing themselves of a handy scapegoat should the results prove unpopular. “Consensus” groups also risk adding another layer to the already bureaucratic system of environmental decision-making. Participation in the QLG, for example, did not free the participants from their obligations to comply with the dictates of the Forest Service, the BLM, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and a plethora of other agencies. Groups like the QLG also often lend themselves to political exploitation. Politicians employ the names of such groups as a means of selling environmental policies as “locally-driven, consensus” initiatives even in cases where a consensus does not in fact exist. The fact that a small group of local citizens devise a plan does not make that plan a “local consensus” initiative, as the QLG situation demonstrates.

Perhaps the most difficult challenge stakeholders will face in the future is determining which QLG-style groups are important to participate in and which ones are not. This will be particularly true should the QLG bill become law and result in the proliferation of such groups. With limited time, resources, and stamina, stakeholders will have to carefully pick and choose which of “consensus groups” are likely to have the greatest impact on their lives. Every hour they spend participating in meetings is an hour that can’t be spent on taking care of business. As rancher Wally Roney has noted, the endless meetings seem to be designed “to keep you fighting until you have nothing left to fight for.”

Bill Coates, the Plumas County Supervisor who helped launch the Quincy Library Group, developed a list of guidelines for local community consensus-building that might have helped resolve some of the problems, if only they had been employed. They include:

1. Keep the process very open.

2. Start small and grow naturally.

3. In the early stages, talk about what you agree on and avoid press scrutiny.

4. Encourage mutual respect.

5. Keep the various interests balanced numerically at all times.

6. Invite the community to monitor and test the process. Keep no secrets.

It is unfortunate that the QLG didn’t follow these guidelines: Not only did the group fail to keep various interests numerically balanced — with ranchers representing only a tiny portion of the participants — but ranchers were frequently vilified at meetings for daring to disagree with the party line. This is hardly an effective means to “encourage mutual respect.” Whether or not Coates’s guidelines provide an effective roadmap for a community consensus project, we may never know. The QLG never followed them.

David A. Ridenour is Vice President of The National Center for Public Policy Research, a Washington, D.C. think tank, where he oversees the group’s environmental programs. Comments may be sent to [email protected].

The National Center for Public Policy Research is a communications and research foundation supportive of a strong national defense and dedicated to providing free market solutions to today’s public policy problems. We believe that the principles of a free market, individual liberty and personal responsibility provide the greatest hope for meeting the challenges facing America in the 21st century.