Central Valley

Weasel-like animal threatens forest plan

Federal authorities have delayed a major forest-thinning project -- aimed at reducing fire danger near Shaver Lake -- because new research suggests the work could harm the weasel-like Pacific fisher.

By late March, Sierra National Forest officials plan revisions to further protect the sensitive fisher in the Kings River Project, about 13,000 acres east of Fresno. The project plan, which had been approved in 2006 after more than a decade of work, could be ready again this fall.

The delay pleased environmentalists but disappointed a Tulare County sawmill executive who says he needs timber from the area to keep his 125 employees working. Kent Duysen, general manager of Sierra Forest Products, said sensitive species have been studied for two decades.

"At what point do you say we need to move on?" he asked.

Environmentalists, who last year sued to stop the project, said the U.S. Forest Service is correct to move cautiously.

"We need to deal with the fire risk without doing more harm," said Craig Thomas, executive director of Sierra Forest Legacy, a Sacramento-based coalition of groups dedicated to protecting forests.

Forest officials said the new fisher research was completed after the project's approval in December 2006. The research shows the animal needs more larger, older trees and more of a canopy overhead than officials had anticipated.

"At the time the plan was approved, we didn't know when the new research would be available," said Sue Exline, spokeswoman for the Sierra National Forest.

The research was done by forest service scientists and a private, nonprofit group called the Conservation Biology Institute, based in Oregon.

The fisher is a focus of great environmental concern south of Yosemite National Park in such places as the Kings River Project area. It has disappeared in the Sierra Nevada north of Yosemite all the way to the Cascades.

The loss of fishers has been blamed on logging and trapping. The animal has been a candidate for listing under the Endangered Species Act, but the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service does not have the money to offer protections.

But now wildfire is among the biggest threats to the fisher and other sensitive species, such as the California spotted owl.

The goal of the Kings River Project has been to mimic the open pine forest that existed in 1850. At that time, the forest was dominated by large trees. Small, lightning-sparked fires regularly cleared out brush and small trees without killing big trees.

Decades of fire suppression have left the Sierra's forests overgrown with brush and small trees, making them susceptible to destructive wildfires.

Thomas of Sierra Forest Legacy does not argue against the use of chain saws to thin the forest. But for years, he has said the Forest Service planned to remove too many large trees in the Kings River Project and jeopardize the fisher.

"The logging in this plan was way more intensive than it should have been," he said.