A state water panel may seek a court order to stop one of California's largest and most controversial timber firms from cutting down more trees on part of its land, officials said Monday.
The dispute is the latest skirmish in a years-long battle over logging between state regulators and environmentalists on one side and the Pacific Lumber Co., which owns more than 200,000 acres of timber land in Humboldt County, on the other.
In the current dispute, the issue is whether logging causes erosion that degrades water quality in streams flowing from the company's property. Environmentalists have alleged that more than a dozen ancient redwoods in Humboldt Redwoods State Park were killed by erosion last month and swept into the Eel River as a result of poor logging practices upstream on company lands.
The looming court battle stems from another unresolved dispute. In December, the North Coast Regional Water Quality Control Board gave Pacific Lumber permission to log in four of seven areas targeted for harvest around Freshwater Creek.
But since Jan. 1, according to the water board, the company has defied the board's orders and clear-cut trees in two of three areas in the Freshwater Creek watershed that remained closed.
The water board contends that the company needed a waste discharge permit or waiver from that permit before cutting in the closed areas. The California Clean Water Act requires such a permit because logging can cause severe erosion that chokes streams.
The reason for seeking a court order "would be to maintain the status quo until we get these issues resolved," said Sheryl Freeman, an attorney who represents the water board. Such an order would tell the company, she said, " 'Don't do the damage until you have permission to do so.' "
A Pacific Lumber spokesman, Jim Branham, confirmed that trees had been cut in two of the closed areas. But he said that simply cutting the trees wouldn't necessarily result in erosion in Freshwater Creek.
"We're not prohibited from logging operations," Branham said. "We're just not supposed to discharge waste, and we're comfortable that felling a tree doesn't cause a discharge."
The dispute stems from the deal that saved the Headwaters Forest of ancient redwoods in 1999. The first part of the deal gave Pacific Lumber $480 million to save about 7,400 acres of the trees.
The second part received much less attention.
In 1999, Pacific Lumber and several state and federal wildlife agencies -- not including the water board -- signed a habitat conservation plan that gave the firm permission to kill or harm animals in some endangered species such as salmon or imperiled birds while logging. In exchange, Pacific Lumber had to stop logging on more than half its land.
However, the plan put few restrictions on what the company could do on the land not protected. The water board has said that, in essence, gives Pacific Lumber permission to keep cutting at a rate that will increase erosion problems in five area streams.
Environmentalists are urging the water board to stop the logging above Freshwater Creek, saying that the panel has been too reluctant to take on Pacific Lumber, which is one of Humboldt County's largest employers.
"We gave them a lot of money and preserved some ancient redwoods," said Ken Miller, a board member of the Humboldt Watershed Council, an environmental group. "The downside of that is that it amounted to a sacrifice of all the other watersheds on the company's land."