Blueprint For a Green Compromise


It all started in the local library. In this town of wood-frame houses and two-story brick storefronts, little seems to disturb the peaceful rhythms. Trucks piled high with logs roll down Main Street, while residents walking by hail each other by their first names.

Yet Quincy, Calif., set amid the pine forests of the Sierra Nevada, has been at the center of the timber wars that have consumed the West, pitting environmentalists against loggers. In courtrooms and on less-civil battlegrounds, they have fought over management of the region's national forests.

Five years ago, the timber companies and local environmentalists sat down amid the stacks and began a dialogue that forged an agreement on the management of 2.5 million acres of nearby national forests. Today, the Quincy Library Group, as the coalition became known, is widely touted as a national model for how two groups with opposite goals can solve their environmental disputes.

"It's a lot better to get out of the courtroom and into the community room and reach a consensus," says Michael Jackson, leader of the group and an environmental lawyer.

This idea has been embraced by the Clinton administration and by its Republican foes. A bill to enforce the agreement passed the House of Representatives two weeks ago by a nearly unanimous vote, and a slightly altered Senate bill is also expected to sail through.

"Natural resource issues tend to be highly emotional," says Undersecretary of Agriculture Jim Lyons, who oversees the Forest Service. "The only way to get them resolved is to get people around the table and reach an agreement. The Quincy Library Group did that."

But the Quincy agreement has also opened up a deep rift within the environmental movement. National environmental organizations have vigorously opposed the legislation, deriding it as a bad deal and the antithesis of true collaboration. They argue it sets a dangerous precedent for local control of national public lands that could weaken environmental protections. It could even be used, they say, by property-rights advocates who oppose all environmental regulation.

"We have no opposition to local people sitting down and trying to find common ground," says Jay Watson of the Wilderness Society. "But local involvement doesn't necessarily mean local control. It is not a good precedent to chart the management of the national forest system on a case by case basis."

Mr. Jackson, who has fought shoulder to shoulder with such people in trying to preserve old-growth forests and restore trout streams, gets somewhat exasperated at such criticism. "They own the forests as much as the locals own the forests," he readily acknowledges. "But they can't tell you where the wolverines cross the road and they can't tell you where the fire hazards are."

Others see a more fundamental divide among the greens over how to conduct the battle for environmental protection. "It's the clash between old ways of doing things, which is confrontation and litigation, and the new way, which is an attempt at collaboration and consensus," says Laurel Ames, executive director of the Sierra Nevada Alliance, a coalition of grass-roots environmental groups that backs community-based solutions.

Already the Quincy group is being besieged by requests to speak with groups as far afield as Florida and Colorado that are eager to know if the model is transferable. Such implications were not obvious when the Quincy Library Group began. Jackson and others had been battling the Forest Service's logging policies for years, filing appeal after appeal against timber cutting plans, with the backing of the Sierra Club and other national groups. One day the Sierra Pacific lumber company, the largest and most powerful firm in the region, walked into his office and offered to talk.

A small group of citizens, among them a retired airline pilot, a store owner, two county officials, as well as environmental activists and loggers, began meeting in the town's blue and white library. "We weren't allowed to yell at each other so it seemed a safe place," says Jackson.

Some six months later a deal emerged covering the Plumas and Lassen National Forests, and part of the Tahoe National Forest. It allows continued logging at current, or greater, levels but also protects the largest, oldest trees, wilderness areas, and riparian habitats. The agreement featured a novel plan for fire protection through some selective logging, clearing of underbrush, and a network of quarter-mile wide fire breaks running along ridge lines.

Initially national environmental groups were supportive. But as the deal emerged, they had great reservations about the amount of logging being locked in and the unproven nature of the fire-control system. They contend the vast scale of the project is many magnitudes greater than other examples of local-consensus agreements.

Some local activists also objected, arguing the deal was born out of the desire of Jackson and Linda Blum, the leading environmentalists involved, to reach an agreement. "They got invested in the process and were willing to give up stuff they didn't intend to give up," says Erin Noel, an activist who monitors regional timber sales.

Others say that the negotiations didn't involve enough people, either. "It's not a consensus," says Neil Dion, an environmental activist who lives down the road from Quincy in the Plumas forest. "They're a few people who made a decision. They didn't listen to me."

Plus, Quincy's isolation prohibited environmentalists from centers like Sacramento and San Francisco from being involved.

Quincy group members dismiss these complaints as those of "elitists" living in urban areas who find it easier to fly to Washington to lobby Congress than drive four hours to the Sierra. They have lived up to the stereotype, says Ms. Blum, a longtime nature conservationist. She vehemently denies charges of a "closed" process, pointing to hours and hours of discussions with environmental groups over the past years and to the fact that the library discussions were open to everyone.

Still, many are feeling left out, and what is left is a lot of bad blood among the former environmentalist allies. "It's absolutely tearing us apart," says Paul Spitler of the California Wilderness Coalition.

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