By Jennifer Henion

Triplicate staff writer

Admitting that its policies damaged economies here and increased the risk of disastrous fires, the U.S. Forest Service vowed this week to change its conservation requirements.

At issue is a 1994 northwest forest plan created to dictate how and where tree-thinning and other forest projects could occur.

That plan was created primarily to protect northern spotted owls and other listed species.

Citing andquot;cumbersome and expensiveandquot; survey requirements that took as long as three years to complete, the recent report said the plan limited wood supplies to forest communities and created andquot;long-term environmental problems, including even greater fire risk.andquot;

The critical report was drafted by foresters Jack Ward Thomas and Jack Blackwell, both employees of the U.S. Forest Service. Thomas was the original author of the plan he now criticizes.

Nearly 70 percent of Del Norte County is owned and regulated by the Forest Service.

Before the 1994 plan, Del Norte County lumber companies could feed their small resident mills with about 59 million board-feet or more of wood.

That amount dropped to 3 million board-feet when the plan was issued, and has averaged 12 million board-feet in the years since then.

andquot;A lot of mills here depended on forest timber. My theory is that what the Forest Service shut down caused the shutdown of the small mill. It really was a crippler of the economy,andquot; said Robert Miller of Simpson Timber Company.

The 1994 plan to boost protections for wildlife and habitat nearly put a stop to projects that thin the forests of underbrush and small trees considered ladder fuels that make forest fires hotter and more destructive, according to Quentin Youngblood, a forester with the Forest Service office in Eureka.

andquot;Before any project (to reduce fuels) could be implemented, the Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management had to do a survey. And they take some time, two, three or four years, and are fairly expensive - $35 to $125 per acre,andquot; said Youngblood.

He said as the Forest Service ran out of funding, staff was cut and fewer studies got done.

The result was less wood and income provided to Northern California communities and more dangerous forest fires.

Del Norte County Supervisor Chuck Blackburn said the giant forest fire that last year threatened lives and homes in Gasquet and a half-million acres of California and Oregon was the result of the bad policy.

andquot;I think Jack (Thomas) took a turn-around, and I think he took a turn-around for a reason. People are starting to see that California is burning up, Arizona is burning up and Oregon is burning up because no one has been managing these forests,andquot; Blackburn said.

To cure the problem, the Forest Service is planning to meet with Northern California Native American tribe leaders, county leaders and state officials to andquot;explore actions for the longer term,andquot; according to Youngblood.

In the short term, Youngblood said requirements for wildlife surveys will be made more flexible, so that fuel reduction projects around communities can begin soon.