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Climate & Energy
Experiment to manage federal lands through local collaboration gets mixed review
Independent Science Panel evaluates Herger-Feinstein Quincy Library Group experiment intended to reduce fires, create jobs, and protect spotted owls

Will Price

WASHINGTON, DC –  An Independent Science Panel has issued its evaluation of a decade-long experiment with locally-driven management of three National Forests in northern California, finding that the experiment fell short of goals set for the number of projects completed, expected timber volume, and associated employment.  The experiment was mandated by federal legislation spearheaded by Senator Diane Feinstein (D-CA) and former Congressman Wally Herger (R-CA), involved environmental groups, timber companies, county governments, and others in US Forest Service decisions on the management of parts of the Lassen, Plumas, and Tahoe National Forests.  The Independent Science Panel report, also mandated as part of the Herger-Feinstein Quincy Library Group Forest Recovery Act of 1998, was released today by the Pinchot Institute, a conservation think tank based in Washington, DC, which coordinated the study and prepared the report to Congress.

The report sheds light on what worked well and what did not, the persistence of conflict, and the need for science that can guide management and improve consensus. Projects focused on forest restoration and creating a network of quarter-mile wide treatments meant to slow wildfires, covered 241,945 acres spread throughout the 1.53-million-acre HFQLG pilot project area on parts of the Lassen, Plumas, and Tahoe National Forests. The experiment showed that projects of this kind could lower the susceptibility of forests to catastrophic wildfire, and reduce the costs of fighting fires when they occur.  

Additional federal funding authorized to implement the Act helped support forest and timber-related jobs, and expanded economic opportunities for businesses in local communities. However, the US Forest Service had estimated that the pilot would provide an annual volume of 286 million cubic feet of sawlogs, the product sought by local mills, but average harvest over the 13 years was only 79 million cubic feet.

Some of the impact assessments, including one on the actual effects on California spotted owl populations as compared to other areas, were never completed. Leaving such key scientific questions unanswered was regarded by the Independent Science Panel as a missed opportunity, especially when these same questions face other communities across the West.

The Herger-Feinstein Act was passed during a period of intense conflict over management of the National Forests, especially the protection of habitat for the spotted owl. The US Forest Service was the target of multiple lawsuits, bringing the management of many National Forests in California and the Pacific Northwest to a virtual standstill.  In a number of communities, local conflicting interests came together to negotiate a path forward, as an alternative to litigation. These collaborative groups had varying success in coming to consensus, and in engaging decision makers in the US Forest Service. The Quincy Library Group, named for the location of their periodic meetings, was the only group to seek Congressional action mandating a role in US Forest Service decisions relating to the management of spotted owl habitat.

“This was a bold experiment in community-based consensus approaches to the management of local federal lands, and important lessons have been learned along the way,” said Pinchot Institute President Al Sample.  “Conflict certainly did not disappear, but this experiment demonstrated both the promise and the challenge of sustaining science-based collaboration among a diversity of interests, and the constructive role it can play in the management of federal forests.”  

The Independent Science Panel report describes nine key findings from this large landscape-scale experiment in northern California. With increases in wildfire and climate-related changes in forest ecosystems predicted to rise, the lessons learned from this experiment may be valuable in ways not anticipated when the project was first launched.  Both a summary and full-length version of the report are available at http://www.pinchot.org/qlg


Passage of the Herger-Feinstein Quincy Library Group Forest Recovery Act in 1998 was nearly unanimous in the House and Senate. The pilot project authorized by the legislation was considered a “breakthrough,” representing an entirely new approach to managing National Forests that offered the opportunity, in then Chairwoman Helen Chenoweth’s (R-ID) words, to “…reinforce that local coalitions, not Washington bureaucracies, are best at deciding what will work for their communities.”

The HFQLG Act was hailed by many as a milestone in the debate over how timber-dependent communities can continue to thrive through the harvesting of timber on federal lands, while restoring landscapes prone to catastrophic fire. Also at issue was the survival of the California Spotted Owl and other species sensitive to changes in the region.

At the time some environmental groups were still not convinced, even a few that had once been members of the Quincy Library Group—so named for having met in the library of Quincy, California, a small town in the heart of the Plumas National Forest. With the passage of the HFQLG Act, the Forest Service proceeded with implementing a plan devised by the QLG, designed to maintain a predictable supply of timber while restoring the forests across a 1.53 million acre swath of the Plumas, the Lassen, and the Tahoe National Forests.

Initially designed for five years, the experiment ran from 1999 until 2012, following two extensions allowed by Congress. The extensions were partially needed due to the slow rate of progress and the complications of incorporating additional policies for federal lands in the California Sierra Nevada region.

Over this time, environmental groups began to actively oppose logging for QLG projects, citing impacts to the California Spotted Owl and other species. While small in number, these cases began to affect the already cumbersome process of Forest Service planning and review for other projects. Dissatisfied with the pace and scale of work, QLG members complained that projects were lagging, and would not demonstrate what they had initially conceived and thought possible.

Over the thirteen years, Congress authorized almost $300 million to implement the HFQLG Act, some of which was supplemental to funding for existing activities. Perhaps concerned by ongoing opposition and slow implementation, for the second extension in 2008 Congress required that the Forest Service spearhead a collaborative process between QLG and Forest Service appellants to resolve differences and make adjustments. This effort foundered, but the experiment continued for a few more years, with the Forest Service continuing to put more projects on the ground.
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