9 Jun 2010, 12:46am
Restoring cultural landscapes Saving Forests
by admin

A Setback for Forest Restoration

Tribe, conservation groups sue Six Rivers National Forest

By Don Baumgart, Indian Country Today, Jun 8, 2010 [here]

ORLEANS, Calif. – The Karuk Tribe of northern California has filed suit against Six Rivers National Forest Supervisor Tyrone Kelley, charging in Northern California District Court that the U.S. Forest Service has violated the National Historic Preservation Act by doing heavy equipment logging in areas sacred to the tribe.

“We participated in good faith in the Forest Service’s collaborative process and we were assured that our sacred areas would be protected and our cultural values respected,” said Leaf Hillman, the tribe’s natural resources director. “It’s now obvious that those were hollow promises.”

According to the final Environmental Impact Statement for the project, the stated purpose and need for the fuel reduction effort is to “manage forest stands to reduce fuels accumulation and improve forest health around the community of Orleans”

However, the actual work on the ground is clearly inconsistent with these stated goals, according to Hillman.

“Supervisor Kelly and the Forest Service have already destroyed cultural sites that are still used by the tribe during World Renewal Ceremonies.”

“After years of meetings between officials from Six Rivers National Forest, the Karuk Tribe, conservation groups and community members, details of the Orleans Community Fuels Reduction Plan were agreed upon,” said Craig Tucker, tribe spokesman. “However, last fall when Supervisor Tyrone Kelley directed his crews to begin logging with heavy equipment in areas sacred to the Karuk Tribe, they violated the agreement and federal law, betraying the trust of local landowners.”

Involved in the suit are 914 acres to be mechanically harvested. The Forest Service awarded the contract to Timber Products for nearly $1 million. Outraged tribal members and local residents halted work on the project last November by blockading logging roads that access the units to be cut.

For three years the Orleans Ranger District in California’s Six Rivers National Forest held public meetings to work with the Orleans community to develop a fuels reduction plan that both Native and non-Native community members could accept, Tucker said. Tribal members, as well as non-Native local residents, thought a consensus had been reached.

“However, when logging began last fall, community members realized immediately that Kelly had reneged on his promises and violated the law by implementing a plan inconsistent with his own Environmental Impact Statement,” Tucker said. … [more]

This is a tragic tale of good intentions and USFS incompetency.

On paper, the Orleans Community Fuels Reduction and Forest Health Project was a good idea. The project was exemplary even, a cutting-edge cultural landscape restoration project. But the leadership of the Six Rivers NF managed to screw it up big time.

Like many national forests in Northern California, the Six Rivers NF has been beset by intense fires burning in heavy fuels. From the project EIS [here]:

[T]here have been at least six fires since 1973 within 10 miles of the project area that have exhibited extreme fire behavior:

* Offield Fire (1973) 8,100 acres

* Hog Fire (1977) 80,000 acres

* Megram Fire (1999) 125,000 acres

* Dance Fire (2001) 30 acres

* Windy Fire (2000) 70 acres

* Geary Fire (2005) 175 acres

* Somes Fire (2006) 15,590 acres

These wildfires had flame lengths exceeding 100 feet during uphill and wind-driven runs and even during backing fires as single trees and clumps of trees burned as crown fires. Strategic locations to fight fire are limited or need clearing to allow safe fire suppression and escape in the event of fire.

The solution developed after extensive public involvement was to restore the vegetation to heritage conditions. That was to be done with apparent sensitivity to the concerns of the Karuk Tribe. From the EIS:

* Enhance cultural values associated with the Panamnik World Renewal Ceremonial District through improved forest health and a reduction of fuels (Forest Plan, p. IV–114);

There are 9,840 acres within the OCFR planning area that are located within the Panamnik World Renewal Ceremonial District and 941 acres within the OCFR project units that would be treated. Historically, regular low-intensity cultural burning was used to maintain desirable forest conditions for the production and gathering of foodstuffs, basketry materials, and game species. Stand conditions were much more open than today, both in the understory and canopy levels, a lower proportion of conifers was also present. Today, pretreatment of vegetation to reduce existing understory and canopy densities is often needed before traditional burning techniques can be implemented to achieve and maintain desirable conditions. Plantations, which were created after harvesting, are also a factor contributing to fuel build-up and increased stand density. With the cessation of traditional cultural burning and the suppression of natural fires over the last 100 years, encroachment and growth of Douglas-fir trees has left some important views for spiritual activities totally obscured. Removal of select canopy level trees is now necessary to restore these views. The desired future condition is to:

1. Increase the acres of vegetation available for maintenance through cultural burning.

2. Open five vistas to enhance spiritual values.

There was significant public involvement in the planning process. The Karuk are not anti-logging. Heck, they once owned a sawmill in Happy Camp. They expressed specific concerns regarding cultural and environmental resource protection, and those concerns were acknowledged and incorporated into the plan and EIS. Everybody was in agreement that the no-treatment option was a bad one, because catastrophic fire is sure to do serious damage.

Everything was hunky-dory, at least on the surface. But then came time for implementation. True to form, the USFS proceeded to screw things up in myriad ways.

Many of the people who designed the project transferred out and were replaced by people who had not attended the public forums and were not aware of all the concerns. The wrong contractor was hired, someone with a record of poor performance and antagonism toward Native Americans, although there are plenty of reputable contractors available. The wrong trees were cut, including large old-growth. Skyline corridors were put in the wrong places. Conflicts with collaborators from the community arose. Numerous errors in implementation began to add up.

Efforts were made by the Karuk to express those concerns to the Forest Supervisor, but he was uncommunicative. More efforts were made, only to met by more stonewalling.

Internally, the Karuk had much discussion and debate over what to do. Some “younger warriors” organized demonstrations last Fall, while some elders recommended less confrontational methods. Eventually a very tough and contentious group decision was made that a lawsuit was the only avenue open to fix the problems. A local enviro group, EPIC, was chosen to provide the legal help, although that decision was also contentious. The Karuk and the local enviros are not necessarily on the same page on a lot of issues.

The general goal of cultural restoration is still widely shared, but only if it is done with sensitivity and skill. The lawsuit is a “last resort” action, undertaken only after all other attempts to reconcile the problems had been rebuffed.

The Forest Supervisor is overmatched for the job. The project has turned into a huge mess, and much of that stems from bad leadership. The same Supervisor is responsible for the fire management of 2008, when a great deal more acreage was burned than was necessary.

It is really tragic that a good project has gone sour. What could have been an exemplary, cutting-edge restoration project has turned into a nightmare.

The problems are not science-based, nor are they related to issues of title or land claims. Nor are they related to broader public health, safety, or economic issues. There is no conflict over the concept of restoration — at least, whatever conflicts there might be, those are not sticking points. It seems the problems are directly related to unskillful implementation and ego issues — specifically the ego of the Forest Supervisor who was promoted beyond his competency level.

The Regional Forester has been informed repeatedly over the last three years by a broad spectrum of interests that the current Six Rivers NF Supervisor is not cut out for the position. But he remains, for reasons one can only speculate about.

The logging of the 941 acres is not a surprise; the crappy way it’s being done is. The refusal of the Supervisor to address concerns has only inflamed the issues — which quite possibly could have been resolved with some sensitivity and open communication on his part.

This could have been a great project, a showcase for restoration. Instead it has deteriorated into hard feelings and litigation.

Now the Orleans forest restoration project has become a setback, for the USFS, for the Tribe, for the community, and for restoration efforts everywhere.


If you have the notion to do so, you could write a letter to the Regional Forester asking him to intervene. Here is a sample letter that might give you some ideas:

To: Randy Moore
Pacific Southwest Regional Forester
1323 Club Drive
Vallejo, CA 94592

Dear Mr. Moore,

What a tragedy it is that the Orleans Community Fuels Reduction and Forest Health Project has caused conflict and discord within the community. This project could have been, should have been, a model for forest landscape restoration nationally.

The community, including the Karuk Tribe, was very supportive of the concept. The community worked with the Six Rivers NF for three years to plan and fine tune this project to meet a wide set of mutual goals.

But the leadership of the Six Rivers NF somehow managed to alienate the community and the Tribe by violating agreements made and decisions incorporated into the EIS and cutting off communication and cooperation.

Now the project has collapsed into litigation brought by former supporters of the project.

The responsibility for that rests squarely with the leadership of the Six Rivers NF, and by extension, with you.

Please consider the following suggestions:

1. Remove and reassign the current Forest Supervisor. That is a harsh thing, but he has alienated his staff as well as the community. The wounds cannot be healed without new leadership.

2. Halt the Project immediately. No further work should take place until serious problems and conflicts are resolved.

3. Reach out to the community to reestablish communication and cooperation. The residents have the greatest stake in the landscape. What happens there happens to them. The Tribe in particular has heritage and cultural concerns that predate the USFS by many thousands of years. Those must be respected, appreciated, and dealt with in a collaborative fashion.

4. If possible, when collaboration is reestablished, continue to pursue cultural and ecological restoration on the SRNF. All parties agree that fuel loadings are a-historical and present an unacceptable hazard to resources and resource values. That is common ground for agreement. But most observers would also agree that cultural values must take precedence in any restoration program. The purpose of restoration is not merely to mitigate fire hazards; the purpose should be to restore people to the landscape. The heritage conditions were cultural — restoration is about people even more so than it is about fuels.

Thank you for considering these suggestions.


9 Jun 2010, 12:26pm
by Bob Zybach


Nice summary and analysis. I think this is another fine example of the road to Hell being paved with good intentions. Egos and incompetence can derail just about anything.

It really is too bad that the Karuk Tribe has been forced to resort to litigation in order to bring these concerns to public attention, but perhaps in the long haul that will be in the best interests of all involved.

It is also too bad that the Tribe had to join with a local environmental group to press their concerns (I am not the only one to have grown bone-tired and suspicious of litigation from these sources over the years), but perhaps it allows one of these groups a graceful way to assist more reasonable advocates in a positive manner. Litigation, per se, is not necessarily a bad thing — and is often needed for certain circumstances — but the way these groups have misused and abused this method in past years and decades puts an immediate bad taste into some mouths. Including my own.

My hope is that this situation develops into a “lemonade from lemons” process and that: 1) restoration projects on USFS lands become larger and more frequent as a result; 2) the USFS becomes truly respectful, trustworthy, and competent in completing these projects; and 3) environmental groups learn to follow the lead of local Tribes and knowledgeable residents in advocating for these types of projects.

The time has come for collaboration and action, and there should be little tolerance for continued incompetence or adversarial litigation. Perhaps this circumstance will accelerate that process.



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