New sales reignite timber battles

New sales reignite timber battles
Bush allows harvest of larger, older trees in northern counties

By Glen Martin
San Francisco Chronicle

December 13, 2004

Cecilville, Siskiyou County, CA — They’re just over the lip of a rutted dirt road and down a precipitous slope about 600 yards: scores of conifers scattered along a creek, all slashed with blue paint.

They differ from the trees comprising the surrounding forest in that they’re bigger—much bigger, some exceeding 3 feet in diameter. In fact, they’re the last truly large trees in this part of the Salmon River basin. And the blue paint means they’ll be cut soon.

This is the Meteor timber sale, one of a series of controversial timber sales authorized by the Bush administration for the Klamath, Six Rivers, Shasta-Trinity and Mendocino national forests, all in northwest California.

Biologists consider the northwest forests one of the richest terrestrial ecosystems in the hemisphere, supporting a vast array of temperate woodland species. Heavily logged in the 1970s and 1980s, the forests have been slowly healing.

But new sales such as the Meteor, say environmentalists, are threatening that recovery. They say the sales are an under-the-radar attempt by the administration to gut the Northwest Forest Plan—a view rigorously countered by the U.S. Forest Service.

Scott Greacen, the national forest program coordinator for the Environmental Protection Information Center (EPIC) in Garberville (Humboldt County)—a small organization that is suing the forest service in an attempt to stop the impending logging—said the agency has expedited the sales by overturning key provisions of the plan, a 1994 program devoted to promoting sustainable forestry practices and enhancing wildlife and fisheries in Washington, Oregon and northern California.

Foremost among these, said Greacen, are rules that require surveying and monitoring of sensitive woodland species.

The rules were given real teeth after a series of lawsuits in the late 1990s compelled the forest service and U.S. Bureau of Land Management to apply them rigorously, Greacen said. As a consequence, timber harvests were greatly reduced throughout the forests—and the direct beneficiaries, said Greacen, were the northern spotted owl, the Pacific fisher, the salmon, steelhead, salamanders and other species that had been so devastated by earlier logging.

“These rules are at the heart of the whole Northwest Forest Plan,” said Greacen. “Without them, the plan is just a document, with no real authority on the ground.”

Greacen said the rule changes will allow logging of the last old-growth trees over much of the northwest forestlands, fragmenting crucial wildlife habitat and reducing the value of established reserves where timber cutting generally is proscribed.

He also criticized a rule change that shifts the emphasis away from possible logging impacts on individual watercourses to impacts on entire watersheds—a change, he said, that will harm recovering populations of salmon and steelhead.

“A sale that will severely degrade a stream could still be approved because it would be viewed within the context of the larger landscape,” Greacen said. “But that’s an absurd rationale, because the impacts aren’t felt across an entire watershed—they’re concentrated on the specific stream where the logging occurs.”

Matt Mathes, a spokesman for the forest service’s California region, acknowledged the revisions in the plan, but said the sales merely represent full implementation of the plan, which authorizes logging in some areas.

Under the original program, Mathes said, numerous reserves for old-growth trees were identified—havens for the species dependent on mature forest systems. Except for thinning programs, timber cutting is prohibited in the reserves.

However, Mathes noted, “There were also ‘matrix’ areas where some harvest would be allowed, so that the little timber towns of northern California, Oregon and Washington wouldn’t be left high and dry.”

All the sales now authorized are in these matrix areas, said Mathes.

“If there’s an attempt to undermine (the 1994 plan), it isn’t the forest service that’s responsible,” said Mathes. “It’s the groups trying to halt these sales. We recognize that stopping all harvest would have a devastating effect on these rural communities. The survey and management rules in particular were paralyzing the full implementation of the 1994 plan.”

Art Harwood, the president of Harwood Products, a Mendocino County timber mill, welcomed the changes.

“Basically, the 1994 plan was no good because it didn’t work,” Harwood said. “It specifically stated that there would be harvests allowed in the matrix areas, but there has been virtually no logging since implementation. So perhaps this will be an improvement.”

The wisdom of logging the bigger trees as a way of reducing wildfire risk—which the plan listed as a secondary goal of timber harvest—is another point of contention.

Peg Boland, the forest service supervisor for the Klamath National Forest, said cutting some larger trees in the forest—such as those from the Meteor sale—would help finance fuel reduction programs.

“One purpose (of the sales) is certainly to get timber to market, but the revenues we receive are also very helpful in our efforts to remove excess fuels,” Boland said.

But most environmentalists and some foresters say fire risk cannot be reduced by removing larger trees.

“Wildfire risk is best reduced by pulling out the ladder fuels, which includes thinning stands of smaller trees,” said Fred Euphrat, a Sonoma County consulting forester whose specialty is sustainable timber production in northwest forest ecosystems. Euphrat said the plan’s combination of reserves and matrix areas is sound in theory—but focusing on harvesting larger trees is problematic.

“That does nothing to reduce wildfire risk—in fact, it makes it worse,” he said. “Stands of large, widely spaced trees are relatively resistant to fires.”

In addition, many biologists say that species associated with the old- growth forests cannot be adequately protected if larger trees are removed.

Rocky Gutierrez, a professor of wildlife biology at the University of Minnesota who is an authority on the northern spotted owl—long considered the endangered species poster child for ancient forests — said judicious thinning can enhance forest biodiversity.

“By removing the smaller trees, you accelerate the development of old- growth characteristics,” said Gutierrez. “You also achieve a degree of fireproofing.”

But if a program of fire hazard reduction involves targeting larger trees, said Gutierrez, “you have to view that with suspicion.”

Regardless of how the fight plays out, it is unlikely it will lead to a renewal of the wholesale clear-cutting that ravaged the northwest forests in the 1970s and 1980s. That’s due partly to the fact that most of the big firs and pines already have been cut; there are plenty of trees, but they’re generally small.

And while many professional foresters favor some kind of regulated harvest of the older trees that remain, others say it’s time to leave the surviving big timber alone.

“I read an editorial in a forestry journal recently that said we need to decide that old-growth is off limits, and it resonated with me,” said Laurence Fox, a professor of forestry at Humboldt State University in Arcata.

“Old growth is such a lightning rod,” he said. “I’m not sure harvesting it is worth the controversy. We’ve been saying for some time now that we understand ecological restoration, that we know how to rehabilitate damaged watersheds. Perhaps now we need to get on with it.”