Environmentalists in this sleepy central California town saw red recently when the United States Forest Service, in a departure from a longstanding policy, decided to let loggers into redwood groves that are almost sacred to nature lovers. None of the specimen giant sequoias - trees more than 150 years old with trunk diameters of more than eight feet - are being sawed. But the loggers are clear-cutting ``whitewoods'' - pine, cedar, and fir trees that blanket the slopes of the Sequoia National Forest here at the southern tip of the Sierra Nevadas.
Visitors are often surprised to discover mammoth redwoods growing 6,000 feet above the dry foothills of the eastern San Joaquin Valley. Conservationists say this is the southernmost soil in the US with enough rainfall - about 35 inches annually - to sustain the huge trees.
Last spring the Kern-Kaweah chapter of the Sierra Club and the Forest Alliance, a local group, sued the Forest Service, claiming that clear-cutting and the building of logging roads will irreparably damage the sequoias, the fragile watershed, and the dozens of wildlife species that nest in the boughs of the old-growth forest. The groups seek to stop the timber cutting and road building until detailed environmental impact statements can be prepared. Arguing that the redwood groves are priceless national resources that cannot be replaced, they asked a federal district judge to order a temporary halt to the timber sales until the case can be resolved in a trial tentatively scheduled for next March.
Last September a US District Court denied the preliminary request on the grounds that the plaintiffs did not present convincing evidence of the potential damage. That ruling has been appealed to the Ninth US Circuit Court of Appeals.
Meanwhile, tractor-trailer rigs snake down the side of the mountains strapped with old-growth pine, cedar, and fir logs valued by the industry for the dense grain and luster missing in second-growth timber.
Even though the Sierra Club has only challenged nine timber contracts on technical grounds - the failure to prepare an environmental impact statement (EIS) - Forest Service officials say a victory could shut down the timber industry indefinitely.
``From the Sequoia National Forest to Washington, D.C., there's a great deal of interest in this case. Directly or indirectly, it could influence a lot of activity on Forest Service land,'' said Bob Rogers, a US official in Porterville.
The concern is that the time-consuming process of preparing an EIS (it can take several years) will prevent sufficient logging to sustain the minimum level of activity needed to make operating the sawmills profitable.
That appears to be part of the environmentalists' strategy. ``It's not going to be so simple just to do environmental impact statements,'' said the plaintiffs' lawyer, Ralph Bradley of Eugene, Ore. ``They will have to look at past, present, and future timber harvests, and that will be time-consuming.''
The timber industry has joined the lawsuit on the side of the federal government, claiming that the current harvest plans - about 90 million board feet a year - make good environmental and economic sense.
Some 1,000 people in the region work in the industry, and one-fourth of the revenues from timber sales are turned over to county officials to finance roads and schools. That meant about $1 million last year for Tulare County, where Porterville is located.
``If the contracts shut down, our people are out of work. That's how they feed their families,'' said Philip Hunter, a spokesman for the tribal council of the Tule River Reservation 15 miles east of Porterville. The council has entered the suit on the government's side.
Glen Duysen, owner of Forest Products in Terra Bella, a railroad junction eight miles south of Porterville, says a Sierra Club victory would shut down the mill, costing 240 jobs and a $4 million annual payroll.
Economics aside, the Forest Service says the whitewoods must be removed to encourage redwood regeneration, otherwise the sunlight needed by sequoia seedlings can't penetrate to the forest floor.
That view is partly supported by independent experts such as Andrew Leiser, a horticulture professor at the University of California in Davis. But, he says, the optimum amount of clear space needed for regeneration is less than 20 acres. The typical timber-sale area ranges from 200 to 400 acres, Mr. Rogers says.
In 1981, Rogers explains, the Forest Service became so concerned about the lack of redwood regeneration that it altered a longstanding policy not to harvest in the groves. But environmentalists say the policy change was the result of pressure from the timber industry, eager to take advantage of the Reagan administration philosophy of maximizing the use of natural resources on federally managed lands.
Forest Service officials say they are just trying to fulfill their ``multiple use'' charter that balances industrial with recreational uses of the forest.