The Davis administration's first attempt to reform the much-maligned state law that regulates logging on California's private woodlands has left both the timber industry and environmentalists grumbling.
The proposed rules, which reflect the new governor's fondness for the middle ground, are eliciting complaints from environmentalists who say the revisions don't go far enough and from timber companies that say they are too tough.
Presented to the state Forestry Board this month, the regulations would tighten restrictions on stream-side timber cutting in an effort to improve water quality and protect fish habitat.
The package is the first step in efforts to strengthen the 26-year-old Forest Practices Act, which many believe has failed to adequately safeguard watersheds, fish and wildlife on the state's 8 million acres of private timberland.
Loggers would have to leave more tree cover near 7,000 miles of fish-bearing streams. The width of buffer zones would be increased and small no-cut zones would be created next to the streams, said forestry board executive officer Chris Rowney.
On year-round streams that don't support fish, the regulations would also expand buffer zones and increase tree retention limits. Burning and equipment usage would be restricted near seasonal streams.
The proposal reflects some of the recommendations of a government-commissioned scientific panel that last month issued a report concluding that the Forest Act does not adequately protect salmon populations.
The new limits would effectively reduce the amount of timber a company can take off portions of its land, prompting protests from the timber industry. "It is a huge impact on private forest land owners that isn't justified," contended David Bischel, president of the California Forestry Assn.
Make it too difficult for landowners to make money off timber, he and others warn, and they will turn to other less environmentally desirable ventures, such as vacation home development.
"If you say these trees are no longer ours to harvest under any scenario, then the unintended consequence is to turn forest land owners to other activities," Bischel said.
Environmentalists complain that the administration has retreated from standards Davis upheld earlier this year in the Headwaters Forest deal, in which the government bought an ancient redwood stand and set guidelines to limit logging near streams in adjacent private holdings.
"Gray Davis has completely abandoned those standards," asserted Ted Nordhaus, executive director of the Oakland-based Living Forest Project. "The buffer on fish-bearing streams and on [others] are all substantially weaker and smaller and allow much more logging than what was required in the Headwaters agreement. The fish don't know the difference."
"We really think this stream protection package is inadequate," Nordhaus added.
Davis press secretary Michael Bustamante responded that Headwaters was a unique situation. The current Forest Act proposal, he said, "strikes a sound balance that in the end will be good environmental policy."
A key aspect of the new regulations, which the forestry board is expected to act on this fall, deals with trying to protect habitat for California's dwindling salmon and steelhead trout populations.
The state's coho salmon population is now an estimated one-tenth of its original size. Commercial and recreational coho fishing have been banned in recent years and the two stocks of coho found in the state are listed as threatened by the federal government.
Some stocks of chinook salmon are now under consideration for listing under the federal Endangered Species Act. Steelhead are in decline in various parts of the state.
There is no single reason for the dwindling fish populations--but biologists say logging has played a significant role. Tree removal eliminates shade, raising stream temperatures and, if not done properly, promoting erosion that can add too much silt to spawning beds. Timber cutting also leaves fewer trees to fall into streams, where they nourish organic life.
With most of California's coho habitat found in private coastal land in Northern California, environmentalists say the state forestry rules are critical to the species' survival.
The new rules are "a big disappointment," said Sierra Club regional representative Elyssa Rosen. "We are at a crossroads and we're hoping Gov. Davis will fulfill his promise to protect California rivers."
Environmentalists want a much larger no-cut zone next to the fish streams, pointing out that the proposed standards fall significantly short of restrictions in place on federal land in the Pacific Northwest, as well as recommendations contained in a National Marine Fisheries Service report issued several years ago.
Terry Roelofs, a salmon expert and fisheries professor at Humboldt State University, agreed the proposed stream-side regulations may not be all that is needed to help the salmon populations, but he nonetheless called them "a big improvement."
And, he predicted, "the rules will evolve and get tighter and tighter."