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Headwaters a Case Study in Forest Policy Failure

TIMES ENVIRONMENTAL WRITER

A generation ago, California enacted a forest protection law widely heralded as the toughest in the nation.

The law was supposed to guarantee a continuous supply of “high quality timber” while protecting hillsides, watersheds and wildlife.

Today, it is widely regarded as a failure on both counts.

Nothing has underscored the weakness of the law more than the saga of the Headwaters Forest in Northern California, where an expensive agreement to save the last virgin stand of giant redwoods in private hands came unraveled on Friday.

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The deal, which would have cost taxpayers nearly half a billion dollars, never would have been necessary had the Forest Practices Act worked. But loggers violated the state law more than a hundred times. Scores of big old trees came down, and salmon in debris-choked forest streams were on the edge of extinction.

When the federal government invoked the Endangered Species Act as a last-ditch effort to halt logging in critical wildlife habitat, Pacific Lumber Co., the owner of the forest, filed a lawsuit challenging the act.

With the collapse of the Headwaters negotiations, the case is likely to be reopened, and the fate of the Endangered Species Act could hang in the balance.

In the meantime, the new administration in Sacramento must figure out what to do with a state law that has left more than one California forest in a shambles.

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California Resources Secretary Mary Nichols responded to Pacific Lumber’s rejection of the deal Friday by saying that the state would beef up enforcement of logging regulations there.

However, the Headwaters, with its majestic stands of 1,000-year-old trees, is part of an extensive web of North Coast forests, many of which have been subjected to far more intensive logging.

Forests--particularly those along the state’s North Coast--are being logged faster than they can grow. Some 80% of North Coast streams violate Clean Water Act standards because of heavy sediment deposits and the pollution they carry. The coho salmon, once abundant in these same streams, is now an endangered species. And downstream residents in several watersheds have filed suits charging that intensive logging on steep slopes has led to landslides and floods that have fouled drinking water supplies and damaged homes and property.

“The Forest Practices Act was geared to production, not to dealing with clean water or endangered species,” said Richard Wilson, director since 1991 of the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection. “As a society, we have gone from straight-line forestry to valuing wild ecosystems, and the law has not kept up.”

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The task of reforming the law presents the state’s newly elected governor, Gray Davis, with a major test of environmental statesmanship.

The challenges extend well beyond Headwaters.

Just to the south, Mendocino Redwood Co., a firm owned by a family with close ties to the nation’s environmental movement, has recently unveiled ambitious and controversial plans to log 200,000 acres of severely cut-over timberland.

The forests of the state’s North Coast have been logged so heavily that many experts believe that only a virtual logging moratorium will allow them to return to health. In many forests, logging has exceeded growth rates by as much as 270%, according to state forestry officials.

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But weighing against stiffer regulation is the fact that more rules, higher fees and fines or logging bans, which environmentalists have been demanding for years, now have the potential of quickening the steady transition of timberlands into housing sites.

As the state grows and rural counties become more populous, timberland is becoming more valuable for its real estate potential than for its trees. Forests once covered virtually half of California. Today the figure is 30% and declining.

The state Department of Forestry reports that about three-quarters of land being converted from forests is being turned into subdivisions. The U.S. Forest Service estimates that the state stands to lose more than a quarter of its most productive timberland by the middle of the next century.

That would be the equivalent of a 2-million-acre clear-cut.

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Most of California’s privately owned timberland is in the hands of families and other nonindustrial owners least able to bear the burden of increased cost and regulation. The state regulates privately owned forest land--a little over half of California’s forests--while the rest is owned by the federal government.

Redwoods Seen as Climate Stabilizer

Since 1975, up to 90% of the forested land lost to other uses has been sold off by small, nonindustrial owners who couldn’t make enough money from the trees.

“Thirty-two percent of California’s land is forested, but forest products represent less than 2% of the state’s economy,” said Laurie Wayburn, president of the nonprofit Pacific Forest Trust, which looks for ways to preserve forests without overcutting them or banning logging altogether.

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“The challenge is to figure out a way to pay the owners of the land for all of the things that society values about well-managed forests.”

Among those valuable benefits are three that are familiar to most forest visitors--clean water, wildlife and scenery--as well as one that policymakers are only beginning to appreciate: Old-growth forests absorb large amounts of carbon dioxide.

Because increased levels of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere are widely believed to be contributing to the warming of the Earth’s climate--the greenhouse effect--forests are a key tool in keeping the climate stable.

Large old redwood trees, Wayburn said, absorb more carbon dioxide through photosynthesis than any other tree. Many experts believe that the conifer forests of the Pacific Northwest represent the most effective potential “carbon sink” in the world.

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But no one pays the owners of forest land for removing greenhouse gases from the atmosphere. Instead, the cost of ownership has been going up.

Today, the owner of a few thousand acres of timber may have to pay as much as $20,000 for a permit to cut trees on a portion of his land. Such fees are only apt to increase as the state devotes more resources to policing logging and protecting the environment.

“The thing that concerns me is seeing the responsible owners sell their land because they can’t afford to hang on to it,” said Peter Parker, a Pasadena businessman who invested in 2,000 acres of coastal Mendocino forest.

During his campaign for governor, Davis said he wanted to protect old-growth forests. Since taking office, he has rejected four prior appointees to the nine-member Board of Forestry.

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“We are committed to revamp the Forest Practices Act,” said Resources Secretary Nichols. “We believe we can have a viable timber industry, keep our forests intact and protect the [wildlife] habitat that healthy forests provide.”

Beyond salvaging the Headwaters agreement, which will take the political equivalent of a “Hail Mary pass,” the most pressing challenge to forest policy is in neighboring Mendocino County.

Just two hours from San Francisco, the county is a prime site for new rural developments. Its forests are twice as large as Headwaters, in much worse shape--and more representative of forest conditions statewide.

Once dense with big redwoods, Mendocino County was one of the places people had in mind when they pushed for the passage of the Forest Practices Act in 1973. A few years earlier, the majesty of Mendocino’s coastal forest had made it a candidate for national park status.

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The Forest Practices Act was seen as a way to prevent profligate logging without locking up all of the trees in a park.

Instead, an emphasis on production has stripped many forests of all but the youngest trees. Stream quality has dropped, habitat has been sharply degraded, and so too has been the quality of the wood.

“Most of the redwood now on the market is lower in density. . . . Some of it will break like carrot sticks,” said William Dost, an emeritus extension specialist at the state’s Forest Products Laboratory at UC Berkeley.

It is in this environment that Mendocino Redwood Co.'s plans are coming under scrutiny.

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A newcomer to the business, Mendocino Redwood is a creation of the billionaire Fisher family of San Francisco, founders of the Gap store chain.

Gap President Robert Fisher is a board member of the Natural Resources Defense Council, one of the nation’s most influential environmental groups and a frequent opponent of commercial logging operations.

Mendocino Redwood took over the holdings of the Louisiana-Pacific Corp., which jolted Mendocino County two years ago with the announcement that it was selling all of its operations there, including more than 200,000 acres of coastal forest.

Environmentalists had long accused Louisiana-Pacific of “liquidation logging,” and even Wilson, the state’s top forester, said LP was pushing the envelope too hard. “Everybody knew they were cutting themselves out of business,” he said at the time.

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A Gentler Approach to Logging

Now, Mendocino Redwood is attempting to prove that it can make a profit while logging the land more gently than its predecessor.

Robert Fisher declined to be interviewed for this article, but his brother John, president of Mendocino Redwood, said he has been consulting with the NRDC and other environmental groups on how to manage forests. He has gone door to door in Mendocino County trying to persuade skeptical residents that his company plans to cut a lot fewer trees than did Louisiana-Pacific.

“We feel we can do it right because we are a family with a strong environmental ethic and a long time horizon--10 to 20 years--before we begin to show a positive return,” Fisher said in a recent interview.

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The company plans to cut one-third fewer trees annually than Louisiana-Pacific, proposing to log just 2% of the trees on its property every year. That is the rate recommended by a panel of environmental experts convened by county officials here seven years ago. In addition, Mendocino Redwood is investing generously in projects to make damaged streams safe for salmon once again.

But that hasn’t stopped a group of local environmentalists from launching a boycott of Gap stores and filing lawsuits to block state approval of Mendocino Redwood timber harvests plans. So far, the state has not ruled on the plans.

“The forest is already so depleted, Mendocino has no choice but to risk damaging the last comparatively healthy watersheds. That’s where the better trees are.” said Linda Perkins of Elk, one of the leaders of the Gap boycott.

Typical of life in changing rural counties, the company is also running afoul of some of its neighbors--primarily newcomers from the city who are offended when they look out their living room windows at freshly logged hillsides.

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It doesn’t matter that the clear-cuts are much smaller than they once were.

“If they want to restore the forest, like they say they do, why do they need to ravage it?” asked Sheila Leighton, a Bay Area transplant, as she pointed at a 30-acre partial clear-cut on nearby Mendocino Redwood land.

But it’s not the sort of thing that bothers old-timers such as Helen LiBeu, who has fought timber companies over worse depredations and who once got her dog registered as a licensed timber operator to demonstrate the laxity of the state’s forestry regulations.

Almost 80, LiBeu, who owns about 1,000 acres of forest, has seen a lot. She has sued Louisiana-Pacific over its forest practices and fought fires on her own land started by reckless loggers working nearby.

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LiBeu, however, has no plans to join the Gap boycott. The alternative to an economy based on well-managed forestry, she fears, is one dependent on tourism, second homes and absentee landlords with no ties to the land.

She hopes Mendocino Redwood, which now owns about one-quarter of the county’s timberlands, can be a model of enlightened forestry.

“I see a chance for Mendocino Redwood. The proof will be in the pudding, of course, but I’m optimistic based on what I have seen so far.

“If they can’t make it, God help us.”

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