In a startling admission of regulatory failure, the California Board of Forestry has acknowledged that for two decades state officials allowed lumber companies to drastically over-cut mature trees and create an alarming “timber gap,” leaving little high-quality lumber available for future harvest.
Conceding what environmentalists have long maintained, the board said there is a “statewide emergency” due to the shortage of mature timber and the rapid disappearance of ancient forests on millions of acres of private land under state jurisdiction.
“Past failure to regulate industrial timberlands . . . has resulted in long-term over-harvesting, drastically reducing both the productive capability of the land and maintenance of adequate wildlife habitat,” the board concluded, adding that studies found almost half of the state’s harvestable timber on private lands vanished in a 10-year period.
The candid assessment by the Board of Forestry, contained in a series of documents filed in recent weeks to justify new regulations, is a sharp departure from the official line of past administrations in Sacramento, both Republican and Democratic.
“The Department of Forestry and the board have consistently been unwilling to acknowledge that there is a problem and now they are saying, ‘Yes, there is a problem,’ ” said Sharon Duggan, an environmental attorney who has filed several successful lawsuits against the board. “They are basically admitting we’re in a crisis.”
The board last month acknowledged that private forests were in distress by issuing emergency regulations to protect timberlands. The new documents, however, contain the board’s most strongly worded admission of the severity of the problem.
Saying that regulation of timber harvesting by previous administrations was piecemeal at best, the board concluded that officials relied too much on the short-term economic desires of lumber companies while paying too little attention to the need to conserve the forests for future harvests.
“This has resulted in some areas in over-cutting, without sufficient regard to the maintenance of healthy and diverse forest ecosystems to supply timber products in the future,” the board wrote.
The new tone of the documents has sent shock waves throughout the logging industry, long accustomed to a sympathetic oversight board, and has produced praise from environmentalists who have warned repeatedly of the damage over-cutting was inflicting on the state’s forests.
The documents only address conditions on California’s 7.1 million acres of privately held forest land, much of which is located in the North Coast region known best for its stands of ancient redwoods. The remainder of the state’s productive timberland--mostly spread over the inland Sierra Nevada--is in state and federal ownership.
Because the harvest has been allowed to exceed the growth of young trees--by as much as 225% in Mendocino County--the board said “inventories within privately owned timberlands have been drastically reduced.”
From 1975 to 1985, the board said, studies have estimated that private forest inventories have dropped from 82 billion board feet to 46 billion. If current trends continue, it said, those inventories will be down to 28 billion board feet by the year 2015. A board foot is a linear measure equal to 1 foot square and 1 inch thick.
Hardest hit by over-harvesting, the board said, have been the privately owned ancient forests, which covered 51,000 acres in 1984 and now cover about 5,000 acres.
The board said state foresters estimate that, in the North Coast area, 1.4 million of the 2.7 million acres of privately owned timberland are now “mixed age stands where the majority of trees are young growth.”
The board said all these factors have led it to conclude that “there is not only a statewide emergency with respect to the issue of cutting young trees . . . but also with the rapidly diminishing ancient forests, watershed impacts and overuse of clearcutting.”
Environmentalists said the new admissions by the Board of Forestry represent a dramatic change in direction for an agency that has insisted until now that it was providing adequate protection for the state’s forests.
Robert Hrubes, a forest economist, called the new assessment the “most important forestry documents to come out in the last 20 years,” and said it shows that government officials have finally recognized that forestry regulation for the last two decades has been driven primarily by “financial cash flow and debt-retirement concerns.”
However, Carlton Yee, a board chairman during the Administration of former Gov. George Deukmejian, said he thought the board had overstated conditions in the forests and could not support its claim of a “statewide emergency.”
“I just have to say it looks extremely political and not based on good science,” said Yee, a forestry professor at Humboldt State University.
Yee defended the actions of past boards, saying they relied on a strict interpretation of the state’s Forest Practices Act rather than the broader interpretation now being made by the Wilson Administration. He said he believed the law gave highest priority to economic concerns.
“I personally get very uneasy telling people how much they can cut,” he said. “I think the market is a better arbitrator of demand and supply.”
His comments were echoed by lumber company attorneys, who complained that the board had based its assessment on reports and studies to which the industry had not been given time to respond.
“The board has apparently taken the narrow view that the environmentalists and certain career bureaucrats are the only constituencies it needs to satisfy when adopting regulations,” Cindee F. Mayfield, an attorney for Louisiana Pacific Corp., said in documents opposing the rules.