Sequoia plan gets new start

VISALIA -- In April 2000, President Clinton-- surrounded by some of the largest trees in the world -- signed a proclamation establishing the Giant Sequoia National Monument, carving the 328,000 acres from the Sequoia National Forest in eastern Tulare and Fresno counties.

Fast-forward to 2008, and there's still no plan in place to govern recreation, fire management and protection of trees, wildlife and historic resources amid the groves of towering giant sequoia trees, as mandated by the proclamation.

It's not for lack of trying. A management plan for the monument was created four years ago, but a federal judge trashed it in 2006 after environmental groups and the California attorney general sued the U.S. Forest Service over alleged flaws in its scientific assessments and its provisions to allow some timber cutting.

Now, the Forest Service is taking another swing, hoping to avoid flaws in the original plan.

"We want to discuss in an open setting, why do you all love this gorgeous monument?" said Tina Terrell, who inherited the monument when she was named supervisor of the Sequoia National Forest a little more than a year ago.

Starting nearly from scratch -- and with a heavy dose of early input from recreationists, conservationists, environmentalists, mountain residents and forest-oriented businesses -- officials are slowly working their way toward a new management plan that not only passes legal muster, but also steers away from knee-deep scientific and government jargon that made the old version nearly incomprehensible to the general public.

The Forest Service is nearly midway through a novel one-year effort to solicit opinions and comments from groups interested in the monument and from the public, aimed at identifying recreation opportunities and historic resources in the monument as well as scientific concerns such as wildlife protection, habitat preservation and fire management.

The Sequoia Monument Recreation Council has been meeting monthly since January, drawing together horsemen, off-roaders, trail hikers, bird watchers, camp operators, mountain residents and business interests to have a say in the new management plan. Potential for chaos among the disparate interests is great, save for their common love of the giant sequoia groves and the surrounding forests. Representatives got together May 28 at the Visalia Convention Center.

"There are so many points of view in this room," said Joan Stewart, representing the California Native Plant Society. "You've got the off-road vehicle people, snowmobilers and horseback riders, and then you've got the people who don't even want to allow horses on the trails."

"But the whole point of this," Stewart added, "is to see if we can establish some common ground and a basis for trade-offs."

Listening closely to the discussions are Julie Allen, a land management planning officer for Sequoia National Forest, and Terrell. Together they are responsible for bringing together what they learn from the recreation group, scientists and environmental interests and the public.

It's a marked departure from how the original plan was formed.

"We've got to allow people to participate in the process," Terrell said last week in Visalia. "This is the values and vision kind of stuff that will help us figure out what the public and the stakeholders want to see from the monument."

Normally, Terrell said, the preliminary comment period -- known as a "scoping period" in planning terms -- "is two or three months, then we publish a proposed plan, and then we ask people what they think of the product," Terrell said. "We're taking a full year this time and getting people to tell us what they think at the start and throughout the process."

The next meeting is June 28 in Lake Isabella. The eventual result, expected in early 2009, will be a proposed management plan and several alternatives, each will undergo a rigorous environmental review and even more public comment before it becomes official -- possibly in 2010 or 2011. In addition to the recreational and historical aspects of the monument, separate processes are under way to examine the core issues at the heart of the lawsuits that derailed the original management plan: the scientific basis for using fire and timber cutting to manage the overall health of the forest, and protection of endangered plants and habitat for wildlife.

But another key task for everyone involved is deciphering the lavish language of the Clinton proclamation itself, said Carie Fox, a mediator hired by the Forest Service to serve as an impartial guide for the stakeholder participation.

For a management plan to be successful, everyone -- from the environmentalists and attorneys who sued the Forest Service four years ago to trail hikers, horseback riders, mountain residents and the Forest Service itself -- is going to have to come to a common understanding of such mundane terms as "object" or "protect," Fox said.

"It matters what an 'object' is because the proclamation says the 'objects' in the monument have to be 'protected,' " Fox said. "And there's a lot of controversy -- or maybe I should say, a richness of dialogue -- over what an 'object' is."

Allen agreed. "We need to come to an understanding of what the words in the proclamation mean," she said. "There are a lot of conflicting interpretations for some of these terms."