Tomorrow, President Clinton is expected to declare the creation of the Sequoia National Monument, composed of 355,000 acres of Sequoia National Forest.
Once again, the people are being asked to buy a pig in a poke. This is partially due to the fact that the management plan for the Monument has not yet been released. It is partially due to the fact that while the president has the power, under the 1906 Antiquities Act, to proclaim federal lands as national monuments, he does not have the power to support them through funding. Only Congress can do that.
But there is another problem with the establishment of this Monument that goes deeper. It is the unwillingness of the federal government to share its decisions with the public until the very last minute, and then to act before public reaction can be weighed. The public may have just one day to respond to the maps and the proposed levels of forest liquidation prior to the president's declaration.
The Sequoia National Forest, which comprises 1.1 million acres, has been mismanaged and overcut for decades. This has occurred under the stewardship of the US Forest Service (USFS), an agency of the Department of Agriculture (USDA). Activists have been forced to go to court repeatedly to stop the worst predations on the Sequoia National Forest. Now, at the moment when it seems we are on the threshold of a great victory, we may actually be taking a step backward.
This is because, as a sop to two sawmills, the Clinton administration is poised to allow the cutting of 28 million board feet of Sequoia National Monument timber over the next two and half years. This is four times the amount of the current annual cut on the entire 1.1 million acre forest!
In other words, while the president declares a national monument out one side of his mouth, out the other he calls in the hogs to the trough for one last feast. The trees to be cut will, in most cases, come from the best forests remaining, those closest to the old-growth stands of giant sequoia, ponderosa pine, and fir that we are supposedly trying so hard to protect.
We don't know, and no one seems able to tell us, whether future legal actions (and with 28 million board feet on the table there will be such actions) will have greater or lesser standing once this Monument has been established. Monument status may even exempt the federal government from obeying certain of its own laws when approving timber cuts.
It's hardly news that Forest Service management of public forest land across the country has been a disaster for the taxpayer and for the environment. Logging of federal forest lands actually costs taxpayers over a billion dollars a year, not counting inventory reduction, loss of soils, denuding of slopes, choking of streams, and the loss of species by the score.
In most cases, national monuments are overseen by the more environmentally benign National Park Service, an agency of the Department of the Interior. Why is the Sequoia National Monument being left in the hands of the Forest Service? This is very much akin to leaving the fox to watch over the henhouse. Perhaps the fox has reformed himself, but who would want to bet on it?
There is also the problem that none of us have been informed as to which areas are to be protected. We've been told that the monument will contain 355,000 acres, but not which 355,000 acres. Many areas that will no doubt be included have already been cleared of trees and wildlife. We look forward to a long, arduous, and expensive job of restoring these areas to something approaching their natural condition.
The Forest Service defends this last fling of timber cutting within monument boundaries as a "forest health" measure. They claim that fuel loads need to be reduced and "hazard trees" removed. This is nonsense. When will the federal government learn to stop trying to play God with our public forest land? In fact, the entire "forest health crisis" has been manufactured by bureaucrats determined to get rid of every last tree.
If this nation, the richest in the history of the planet, can afford to create the Sequoia National Monument, it can afford to buy the contracts for the 28 million board feet of timber already sold but not yet cut. After all, how does one create a monument by logging off another 28 million board feet of timber?
We can also buy the sawmills that would be impacted by the creation of the Monument and we can retrain the affected workers for new jobs. Further destruction of this unique and precious forest habitat is totally unwarranted, unnecessary, and counterproductive to the stated intention of declaring the Monument in the first place.
Dan Hamburg is executive director of Voice of the Environment, a Bolinas-based nonprofit.