Editor’s note: After this newsletter went to press, SPI announced a change in its timber harvest methods intended to soften the visual effects of clearcutting. Instead of cutting all of the trees it can on a site, the company may leave groups of trees on one to five percent of a harvest site and also retain about four to eight standing trees per acre. Most forest watchers do not consider this to be a significant change. It does not address the public’s concerns about water quality, wildlife, and ecosystem sustainability.
Anderson-based Sierra Pacific Industries (SPI) is the largest private landowner in California and the second-largest private landowner in the nation. Its forest holdings in the state total more than 1.4 million acres, including 73,310 acres in Calaveras County and 25,611 acres in Amador County. The local lands were formerly owned by Fibreboard Corporation and Georgia-Pacific. SPI owns about 23 percent of the upper Mokelumne River watershed, just under 87,000 acres.
SPI, a privately held company run by Archie "Red" Emmerson, has announced plans to clearcut up to 70 percent of its Sierra forest holdings, including its local lands. The clearcutting has already begun.
SPI has clearcut about 400 acres near Calaveras Big Trees State Park. Last fall, the company submitted two timber harvest plans (THPs) in the Middle Fork Mokelumne and Blue Creek watersheds of Calaveras County that would have clearcut a total of 1,617 acres. It withdrew both plans after site visits by the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection and public comments. Other clearcut timber plans are still pending (see list at www.fire.ca.gov).
Most recently, the company has submitted a THP for the Beaver Creek watershed near Ellis Road, south of Highway 88 at Lumberyard, just above the North Fork of the Mokelumne River. The plan proposes to clearcut 148 acres. Another project near the Salt Springs campgrounds proposes to clearcut 157 acres. SPI’s five-year plan for the Mokelumne watershed identifies THPs covering nearly 10,000 acres.
If you look across the Mokelumne canyon from Highway 88 above Dew Drop, you can identify the clearcuts as large snowy patches in the forest. One clearcut on the side of Calaveras County’s Blue Mountain is so prominent that it can be seen with the naked eye from downtown Sacramento.
How clearcutting works
Clearcutting is legal on private land in California, provided the landowner follows the state Forest Practices Rules (to see them, go to www.fire.ca.gov), which are administered by the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection (CDF). The practice has been barred in the Sierra’s national forests for a number of years.
Generally, the state private forestry rules allow clearcuts up to twenty acres in size, although thirty-acre clearcuts are allowed on flatter slopes. The landowner must leave a comparable area uncut beside each clearcut patch, which results in a patchwork of cut and uncut areas. The clearcut area must be replanted. After five years, if the young trees are five feet tall, the landowner can come back and clearcut the forested islands that remain.
In the SPI clearcuts we’ve seen and read about, SPI is cutting nearly every tree, including oaks on which wildlife depend for food (the landowner is required to retain a certain number of oaks, but if the harvest area doesn’t contain the minimum required to begin with, SPI’s plans propose to cut them all). They sometimes leave a large standing dead tree (snag) or two for wildlife.
Recently, SPI Martell District Manager Ed Struffenegger told us that in response to public concerns, the company is beginning to leave "wildlife retention areas" within its clearcuts and allowing foresters to retain any trees they feel are necessary for wildlife, aesthetic, or other reasons.
After the logging is complete, all of the brush, unusable logs, and other organic material is bulldozed into a large pile and burned or "broadcast burned" where it sits on the ground. Generally all organic material is scraped off to provide the bare, mineral soil needed by young pines. The soil may sit bare through the winter storms.
In the spring following the clearcutting, the company comes back and plants tree seedlings. It often deep-tills the soil first. According to Struffenegger the company is planting ponderosa pine, sugar pine, Douglas-fir, and white fir, depending on the site. The company uses herbicides to ensure that weeds, shrubs, and oaks don’t compete with the young trees for water and nutrients.
One herbicide, hexazinone, is very controversial. It persists in water and soil and is harmful to aquatic life and possibly to humans as well. According to biochemist Robert Stack of Angels Camp, hexazinone has been banned in several European countries and is a possible estrogen disrupter. SPI used 1,764 gallons in the Mokelumne watershed alone in 1999, according to an SPI-funded report from Foster Wheeler Environmental. Another herbicide used is 2,4-D, which contains dioxin.
SPI plans to harvest its plantations when they are about sixty to eighty years old, with two or three thinning cuts prior to final harvest.
Residents and others in the Sierra and elsewhere share the same concerns about SPI’s massive clearcutting plans. They are alarmed by the potential wholesale destruction of the beauty of our forested mountains, damage to streams, fish, and water quality from sedimentation and herbicide use, loss of wildlife habitat, decreasing property values as views deteriorate, diminished recreation and hunting and fishing opportunities, and adverse effects on those who work in the timber industry and others who depend on the forest for income. And many people simply object to turning massive amounts of Sierra Nevada forest into tree plantations, which can bear more resemblance to corn fields than healthy, complex forest ecosystems.
Our forests are home to threatened and endangered species that may be harmed by SPI’s plans, as well as other not-so-rare species that are driven from their homes by clearcutting and pushed into already occupied habitat. Sierra wildlife need a variety of forest types, tree sizes, and forest canopy coverage. Large standing live and dead trees as well as rotting logs and other woody debris on the forest floor and in streams are essential for the animal, fungal, and microbial life that comprise a healthy forest.
SPI and its paid scientists claims that its plans are good for wildlife and forests and do not harm water quality. Yet we are not aware of any prominent Sierra scientists who support the company’s plans.
Local residents object
Last year, residents of the Arnold area strongly objected to SPI’s plans to clearcut in the Upper San Antonio Creek watershed near and adjacent to Calaveras Big Trees State Park. SPI suspended its plans for a time, then came back with a revised proposal that did not begin to answer local residents’ concerns. Areas clearcut last summer were expanses of bare clay when we flew over them last fall.
Concerned local residents along Highway 4 are continuing to work on this issue. Ebbetts Pass Forest Watch, made up of local business owners, retirees, and other concerned residents, has become an active voice for reasonable timber harvest practices, advocating a return to selective harvesting rather than SPI’s plans for massive clearcuts.
In the northern part of Calaveras County and southern Amador County, Foothill Conservancy has joined with other local residents to address this issue. We helped produce a standing-room-only public meeting in West Point on December 3. Since then, the group has developed a statement of purpose and forest principles. Meetings have been attended by a broad spectrum of local residents, including some loggers.
Both Ebbetts Pass Forest Watch and our joint county group are sending comments to CDF on SPI’s individual timber harvest plans. Neither citizens group opposes sensible logging practices.
Support for SPI has come primarily from local property rights advocates. While SPI’s lands are indeed private, the company’s practices on that land affect water and wildlife that belong to all of us, and their actions can hurt local property values.
Local government response mixed
Last summer, the Calaveras County Board of Supervisors supported legislation that would have placed a two-year moratorium on clearcutting in the state while a team of scientists studied the practice. The bill died in the last hectic hours of the legislative session. The Calaveras supervisors subsequently decided against funding a countywide task force that would look into developing a set of county forest practice rules. However, a citizen task force was formed and is meeting now. For more information, contact Addie Jacobson at 728-1140. The county planner is also participating in timber harvest plan review.
The Calaveras County Water District has expressed concern about clearcutting. It is working with community members to develop water-quality monitoring grants.
SPI delivered a computer-based presentation extolling the merits of its plan to the Amador County Board of Supervisors in December. The supervisors seemed satisfied by SPI’s explanation and did not allow any comments or rebuttal from the public.
The Amador County General Plan requires the supervisors to protect the visual quality of the county’s scenic highways, including Highway 88, and specifically references clearcut timber harvests. However, as far as we know, the county has taken no action to protect the views from Highway 88, despite our raising the issue before the planning commission. More and more clearcuts, both in Amador and Calaveras, are visible from that state scenic highway/federal scenic byway that has long attracted visitors to our county.
What you can do
If you’d like to help, please contact us, Ebbetts Pass Forest Watch, or the Mokelumne Rivers Forest Watch (see contact information, below). And be sure to call your county supervisor and state representatives. Remind them that those who oppose SPI’s plans do not oppose all logging, but instead are concerned about the massive conversion of our forests to plantations through unprecedented levels of clearcutting and the resulting effects on water, wildlife, aesthetics, property values, and our local economy. We can have timber harvests and protect natural values and communities, too.
If you have expertise in the state Forest Practices Act, wildlife, geology, archaeology, hydrology, water quality, forestry, herbicides, or other pertinent specialties, and you would like to work with those currently commenting on local THPs, please call our voice mail (296-5600) or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.
For more information
- SPI report by the Planning and Conservation League Foundation: http://www.pcl.org
- State forest practices law and regulations, list of current THPs, THP comment and review process: California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection: http://www.fire.ca.gov
- Ebbetts Pass Forest Watch: 785-5095 (voice mail), http://www.forestwatchers.org,
- Calaveras citizens forestry task force, Addie Jacobson: 728-1140
- Mokelumne Rivers Forest Watch contact list, for information and meeting times: email@example.com, or call Mike Spadoni at 293-7160 or Alan Willard at 293-4379.