Logging debate heats up as forest, court actions counter timber money

By Don Thompson Associated Press Writer
Monday August 06, 2001

SACRAMENTO – Julia “Butterfly” Hill spent nearly two years living in a California redwood to save it from a logger’s chain saw. 

Now, she’s back to earth with other logging opponents, fighting in the courts, state Legislature and at the ballot box as part of a growing movement against clearcutting and harvesting of California’s few remaining old growth forests. 

The revived activism, they said, is needed to respond to a well-funded timber industry with friends in the White House and governor’s office. 

Unable to match the industry financially, logging opponents are tapping a coalition of environmental groups and mainstream churches to gather the 419,260 signatures needed for a November 2002 ballot measure that would ban cutting virgin timber on nonfederal land and outlaw harvesting trees alive before California became a state in 1850. 

Reports filed at July’s end show the timber industry spent more than $348,000 on lobbyists and gave more than $155,000 to state officeholders, including $17,000 to Gov. Gray Davis the first half of this year. 

Opponents point to the recent budget negotiations that ended with a sales tax break for logging equipment as an example of the clout wielded by the well-connected industry. 

“We can’t play that game. We don’t have the deep pockets,” said former North Coast Rep. Dan Hamburg, an activist and the 1998 Green Party nominee for governor. 

Elsewhere, the anti-logging movement has been energized. The California Democratic Party’s resolutions committee condemned clearcutting in July.  

The Citizens’ Campaign for Old Growth Preservation and the Sierra Club independently cite surveys they say show public support for such a ban, and accuse Davis of breaking his 1998 pledge to ensure “all old-growth trees are spared from the lumberjack’s ax.” 

That’s unfair, said state Resources Agency Assistant Secretary Maria Rea. Davis “has done a lot of things to protect what little old growth there is.” 

Davis also created conservation easement and Forest Legacy programs, Rea said, is also negotiating with the industry to protect other old-growth forests. 

Industry officials said California already has the nation’s most stringent forestry rules, despite the higher demand for lumber created by development. There’s been a lot of progress made on environmental issues, but that rarely gets noticed, they said. 

“What we get for that is more lawsuits and more protesters hanging out in trees and locking themselves to fences,” said Pacific Lumber Co. government relations director Jim Branham. 

Some lawmakers think the California Board of Forestry has delayed action on salmon habitat and timberland protections, said Sen. Byron Sher of Stanford and Assemblyman Fred Keeley of Boulder Creek, Davis’ fellow Democrats. 

That’s why the Legislature voted to withhold half the board’s budget unless it extends temporary rules set to expire at year’s end. Davis vetoed the plan. 

Democratic Senate leaders put off confirming Davis’ three January board appointees until at least September, when they may face sharp questioning. 

Environmental groups and some lawmakers say Davis stacked the nine-member board in the industry’s favor, while Davis spokesman Roger Salazar said the governor’s appointees provide a “balanced, fair perspective” which he would not detail. 

A Senate-approved bill by Sen. Sheila Kuehl, D-Santa Monica, would restrict the governor’s authority by setting new qualifications for his appointees. Industry representatives said that automatically gives environmentalists three seats on the board. 

Sher also has a bill opposed by industry that would let counties ask the board to block Department of Forestry approval of any timber plan calling for removing at least 70 percent of a stand of trees. 

That puts the Legislature in an “eyeball-to-eyeball” fight with Davis, said Sierra Club organizer Warren Alford. 

Outside the Legislature, activists have launched protests in Humboldt, Santa Cruz and Nevada counties against logging plans by Pacific Lumber, Redwood Empire and Sierra Pacific Industries. 

“Every other system is failing,” Hill said during a recent Capitol rally 19 months after her 738-day redwood sit-in. “That’s the only time you see people taking to that final line, being willing to risk their lives and their freedom for what they believe in.” 

In court, environmental groups are also finding some success. 

They won a court order and U.S. Forest Service administrative decision temporarily halting the logging of fire-killed trees in a former roadless area of Northern California’s Six Rivers National Forest. 

Separately, a federal judge is threatening to block the thinning of trees in three Northern California national forests as part of a fire prevention program, unless the Forest Service shows it won’t hurt the environment. 

A third suit argues that runoff of sediment and herbicides from Pacific Lumber Co. logging sites amounts to water pollution barred by the federal Clean Water Act. 

Branham called the pollution suit “ridiculous,” another attempt to shut down the company’s logging. In recent years the company began leaving more trees alongside streams, avoiding landslide areas, and increasing its use of helicopters instead of tractors to remove logs, he said, but “enough is never enough.” 

Sierra Pacific, said director of forest policy Tom Nelson, recognizes logging is under assault and has “done a lot over and above” what’s required. Most residents appreciate the company’s efforts, he said, but the critics “are people who want you not to cut trees any more.” 

The company said it will sell 30,000 to 50,000 acres of marginal timberland to a conservation group for permanent preservation. 

It also said it will voluntarily leave more trees on 70 percent of Sierra timberlands it had planned to clear-cut. The Anderson-based company calls its new practice “visual retention,” designed to soften the visual impact of clear cuts in tourist-heavy areas. 

That’s “clearcutting by another name,” Alford said. 

Central Sierra Environmental Resource Center and Ebbetts Pass Forest Watch sued the company last week in Calaveras County court, alleging the state’s current forest practices law and regulations fail to properly take into account clearcutting’s “cumulative impact” on wildlife and waterways.