Heavy logging along the rugged Northern California coast by the Pacific Lumber Co., which owns some of the last large stands of ancient redwood trees in private hands, has degraded water quality and aggravated flooding in five rivers and streams, according to a new state report.
The study done for the North Coast Regional Water Quality Control Board recommends that Pacific Lumber, based in Scotia, reduce timber cutting on the 220,000 acres of land it owns in Humboldt County. Otherwise, the report says, conditions will probably not improve.
The new report supports the allegations of many local residents and environmentalists that logging on steep terrain by Pacific Lumber is causing soil erosion that is clogging the Elk River and four smaller creeks with sediment.
That, water quality officials say, has resulted in frequent flooding that has caused damage to homes and pastures and blocked access to the land for about 100 property owners along two of the streams.
The analysis was compiled by a team of scientists without ties to the logging company, area environmentalists or the water board.
The company argued that the study placed too much blame on current logging practices, which they say have improved in recent years.
"There are problems with the report that are based more on looking backward than forward," said Jim Branham, a Pacific Lumber spokesman. "But we've changed the way we do business. The way we harvest trees today is very different than in decades past."
Pacific Lumber is best known for its long and contentious battles with environmentalists over the Headwaters Forest, a 7,400-acre area that includes redwood trees that are centuries old and reach heights over 200 feet. After lengthy negotiations, the core of the area was sold to the state and federal governments in 1999 for $480 million.
Environmentalists, some scientists and government officials have been decrying the effects of logging on riverbanks in the Pacific Northwest for decades. But there has been little consensus among the many government agencies that regulate timber harvests on how to set limits on logging that would improve water quality and reduce flooding.
The new report endorses a method that, in effect, would probably reduce the number of acres of land that Pacific Lumber could log along the five rivers and streams. It will be up to the water board to decide whether these standards will be used to regulate the timber company.
A report with similar findings was released by the board's regional staff in September 2000 but never acted upon.
"Due to political pandering, the board stopped anything from happening on that report," said Cynthia Elkins, the program director for the Environmental Protection Information Center. "But this really underscores the problem we've pointed to repeatedly -- that the sheer rate of logging is incompatible with protecting water quality."
The water agency consists of a salaried staff, which makes recommendations to a politically appointed board that sets water policy. Board members are selected by Gov. Gray Davis, who received $60,000 in donations from Pacific Lumber in the 2001-02 campaign, according to state election records.
"The staff does what the staff should. It analyzes information," said Susan Warner, the executive officer of the North Coast Region of the water board. "We have never expected the regional board to rubber-stamp what the staff says."
If the board does endorse the proposal on how to calculate harvests, the volume of timber taken from Pacific Lumber land will almost certainly decline, although no one is sure by how much.
The company, a subsidiary of Texas-based Maxxam Inc., has been under fire from environmentalists for years for allegedly over-cutting its forests.
Company officials said that streams in the area have always behaved erratically because of the region's heavy rains and steep terrain.
Any changes to those streams, the company said, are probably a result of past logging practices and old, poorly constructed roads that crisscross its lands.
In 1999, the company entered into a "habitat conservation plan" with several state and federal wildlife agencies to protect more than a dozen imperiled species on its land, including salmon, the spotted owl and the marbled murrelet, a tiny bird.
Pacific Lumber officials say the agreement puts more than half their land off limits to harvest and will help improve the area's environment in coming decades.