The forests of the Sierra Nevada have long been a landscape of controversy, a battleground for conflict over logging, wildlife protection, water diversion, and the accelerating encroachment of vacation homes and subdivisions into flammable scenery.

Gubernatorial politicking may soon move into the woods as well, as forest policy could provide an issue that Democratic challengers to the state's Republican governor use to draw a contrast between themselves and the incumbent.

During the recall campaign that swept him into the state's highest office, California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger issued a package of promises - "Arnold's Agenda to Bring California Back" - that included a strong environmental component. Among the planks that most cheered green groups was a pledge to uphold and defend a landmark forest management plan called the Sierra Nevada Framework against critics' efforts to derail it.

The framework established new rules for managing 11 national forests encompassing 11.5 million acres of the Sierra Nevada (see CP&DR Environment Watch, April 2004, March 2001). The framework would have established a protected network of "old forest areas" to maintain suitable habitat for old-growth-dependent species. The plan put large trees off limits to logging. An estimated 191 million board feet of timber would have been available for harvest during each of the first five years, a one-third reduction from logging levels during most of the 1990s.

The purpose of the framework was to avoid a repeat of the court-ordered logging shutdown that affected Oregon and Washington during the late 1980s and early 1990s, the result of protections imposed through litigation for endangered wildlife dependent on old-growth forests, such as the spotted owl. The process of developing the Sierra plan involved local community groups, the timber industry, scientists, environmentalists, recreation groups, economists, and state and federal agencies. It cost $20 million, involved nearly 200 public meetings and attracted the participation of 47,000 people. It was finalized in January 2001 just three days before President Clinton left office.

The U.S. Forest Service (USFS) initially indicated support for the plan. "I believe our new management direction will protect and improve habitat for species, and avoid the need for listings as threatened or endangered," Pacific Southwest Regional Forester Brad Powell said when he issued the final decision adopting the framework. "This will also reduce flammable materials in these areas to the point that prescribed fire can be used safely."

Before the year was out, however, the new regional forester, Jack Blackwell, announced his agency would undertake an extensive "review" of the document after receiving more than 200 appeals. The veiled meaning of Blackwell's announcement was not lost on environmentalists or those seeking their support.

During the 2003 recall campaign, Schwarzenegger called the plan "a model of forest ecosystem protection," and pledged that if elected governor, he would "direct all relevant state agencies to comply fully with the framework and call on the federal government to honor its pledge to abide by the policies set forth in this unprecedented compact."

The federal government clearly felt unbound by the pledge. In January 2004, only two months after Schwarzenegger became governor, the revised framework landed on his desk with a thud. Critics said it was less a revision than a wholesale rewriting of the plan. The new plan more than doubles the amount of logging, eliminates the protected "old forest areas" and allows larger trees to be cut.

"Our district rangers who have worked hard to implement the (2001) framework have told me that it's difficult or impossible to meet its good goals," Blackwell said in issuing the new plan. "For instance, the framework's reliance on prescribed burning to reduce fuels is not working out due to limitations imposed by weather or local residents' objections to smoke."

Cutting more and larger trees was necessary, Blackwell said, to "help offset the cost of removing the less valuable smaller trees and brush that are unnaturally dense due to decades of fire suppression."

In response, Governor Schwarzenegger veered off the path blazed by Candidate Schwarzenegger. The pro-framework pledge quietly disappeared from his campaign website. And he submitted no formal response to the Sierra plan revision, even though 9,000 members of the public filed appeals with USFS objecting to the new version. On March 21, Agriculture Undersecretary Mark Rey (a former timber industry lobbyist) affirmed the revised plan.

Attorney General Bill Lockyer, who had vowed to sue the Bush administration if it overturned the 2001 framework, made good on his word. In a complaint filed February 1, he accused the Forest Service of acting "arbitrarily and capriciously in jettisoning the 2001 framework," and contended that the agency had thereby violated both the Administrative Procedure Act and the National Environmental Policy Act.

In producing the new policy as a replacement for the 2001 plan, Lockyer argues, the USFS provided no reasoned analysis justifying the change. It also failed, he contends, to conduct a thorough environmental review of the new policy as required by NEPA, and did not examine alternatives to the policy it adopted. Lockyer's lawsuit echoes many of the criticisms directed at the Forest Service by environmental organizations and community groups that participated in creation of the earlier framework.

"The Framework was a balanced approach to forest management that reduced the wildfire threat to communities while protecting forests, wildlife and water quality," said Craig Thomas of the Sierra Nevada Forest Protection Campaign. "This decision revokes a sound plan and ignores the advice of scientists commissioned to review it."

Continuing his campaign to intercede where the Schwarzenegger team has been noncommittal, Lockyer also filed a lawsuit March 3 challenging a USFS management plan for Giant Sequoia National Monument that would allow commercial logging of up to 7.5 million board feet annually.

It is not only federal forests that provide an opportunity for Schwarzenegger's critics to focus potentially unflattering attention on the sincerity of the governor's commitment to environmental principles. Earlier this year, the governor - who has appointed former timber-industry representatives to high-level positions in the state's resource management agencies - was asked to intervene in a dispute between Pacific Lumber Company and the North Coast Regional Water Quality Control Board over logging on company land in Humboldt County (see CP&DR Environment Watch, March 2005).

Lockyer, a Democrat, is a probable candidate for governor in 2006. Before he can take on Schwarzenegger (assuming the governor seeks re-election) Lockyer will face off against state Treasurer Phil Angelides, who announced his candidacy on March 15. It is unlikely that forest policy alone will put any candidate on the endangered list, but it does allow potential challengers to chip away at the governor's image.