Activists Press for Ballot Measure to Protect Trees

Times Staff Writer

Saying the state's ancient trees are in peril, forest activists called on lawmakers Tuesday to put a measure on the ballot letting California voters decide the fate of old growth on private timberlands.

Led by epic tree-sitter Julia Butterfly Hill and by Susan Moloney, who conducted a 52-day hunger strike on the Capitol steps last fall, the Campaign for Old Growth hopes to halt the cutting of any tree predating the state's founding in 1850.

They told the Senate Committee on Natural Resources and Wildlife that the Legislature should also consider an emergency moratorium on old-growth harvest to stave off possible "panic cutting" by timber firms if a measure heads to the ballot.

"We're asking that you put a stop to this barbaric practice," said Moloney, who gave up her hunger strike when state Sen. Sheila Kuehl (D-Santa Monica) offered to hold Tuesday's hearing. Hill, who spent two years in a North Coast redwood, wept softly as she called the old trees "an irreplaceable and priceless part of our legacy."

Their pleas were met by immediate resistance from logging industry officials, who said California is already aggressively protecting old-growth forests. They said a ban on the harvest of old trees on private property would bankrupt some timber outfits and reduce tax revenues to the state's coffers.

"I think our old-growth situation is better than anywhere else in the world," said David Bischel, president of the California Forestry Assn. He added that just one in 10 of the state's estimated 110 million old-growth trees are on private lands, and the rest are preserved inside state and national parks and forests.

Jay Francis of the Collins Pine Co., which logs a large swath of the northern Sierra, said his firm has practiced sustainable forestry for decades. A ban on old-growth harvests would freeze out the firm's most prized asset, he said: "It would put us out of business."

Andrea Tuttle, Gov. Gray Davis' forestry chief, said the state has added 42,000 acres of new forest land to its reserves in the last four years, most notably the historic purchase of the ancient redwoods of the Headwaters Forest in Humboldt County. She said the proposed initiative would be costly to enact and affect up to 8 million trees and more than 1.5 million acres of private forest.

A majority of those are on nonindustrial lands, Tuttle said. "I can't tell you how many landowners I've talked to who feel compelled to cut these trees just to obtain their certain value before it is taken from them," she said.

None of the Senate committee members took a stand during the hearing, but Sen. Byron Sher (D-Stanford) said the logging industry should step up now or face the voters' wrath. "It would seem the better part of wisdom," Sher said, "since you feel the initiative would be devastating to your industry."

The Campaign for Old Growth attempted to put an old-growth ban on the statewide ballot last year but failed to gather enough signatures. But the effort helped it build a volunteer base it claims now numbers more than 1,200. If the Legislature declines to sponsor the initiative, the group says it will again try to collect the more than 370,000 signatures needed to put it on the ballot, probably in March 2004.

Hill said there is huge public support for saving old growth. "We don't have money," she said outside Tuesday's hearing, "but we have the hearts of the American public."

Activists say they are driven by a fear that timber companies could cut nearly all the state's old-growth trees on private lands in less than a generation. Timber industry officials counter that the state's big trees will double in number in the coming century, as young forests continue to mature.

Conceding that tracts of old growth are protected on government lands, activists say more than 97% of the old trees that once stood in California have fallen since the Gold Rush and the acceleration of industrial logging in the 20th century.

Old-growth forests are among the world's most potent collectors of airborne carbon, sucking up vast amounts of greenhouse gases.

Michael Soule, a conservation biologist with the Wildlands Foundation, told lawmakers that the remaining old trees represent a small number of refugees that continue to serve as "beachheads for ecological renewal" in forests laid low by the ax.

Aside from providing wildlife habitat for endangered species, many old-growth species provide shade and nutrients for the development of surrounding trees.

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