When you visualize a forest, is it a checkerboard of 18-acre patches with 2-foot-tall trees evenly spaced on a grid pattern, alternating with squares of scorched earth and patches of 10-foot-tall trees branching out with limbs at the 6-foot mark?
If behemoth timber company Sierra Pacific Industries (SPI) prevails, this is the future of California’s private forests. But that is a future that the Senate Select Committee on Forestry was trying to avert with a special hearing this week on the issue of clear-cutting.
Held March 7, the hearing is expected to spawn legislative action to reign in SPI’s clear-cutting practices in California. And if such efforts suffer the same industry-influenced death as last year’s Assembly Bill 717—which would have put in place a two-year clear-cutting moratorium while environmental impacts of the practice were studied—activists such as Brian Vincent of Nevada City say they will keep pushing for change with direct action or a ballot measure.
For years, SPI has “operated below the radar screen,” said Vincent, quietly buying up Sierra Nevada forests, “pushing aside smaller, more responsible logging operations” until it has become the second largest private landowner in the United States, owning 1.5 million acres.
Vincent, a former D.C. lobbyist now working for the nonprofit American Lands Alliance, last month served six days in the Wayne Brown Correctional Facility in Nevada City for his protest actions last summer.
He and other members of Yuba Nation, a non-violent direct action group, attempted to block SPI from implementing its vision upon one of the most scenic corridors along the Yuba River.
Vincent is determined to flush SPI’s actions into the open for public scrutiny. He compares Yuba Nation’s acts to the civil disobedience of the Boston Tea Party, Vietnam War demonstrations and protests in China’s Tiananmen Square.
SPI intended to clear-cut at Edwards Crossing on the South Yuba River, a popular recreational site, jewel to Nevada County’s burgeoning tourist industry.
The company had filed a timber harvest plan (THP) that escaped public notice before that stretch of river received “Wild and Scenic” protective designation in October 1999. Not only did the potential for soil erosion of the area’s steep slopes worry environmentalists, but the area is also habitat for numerous imperiled species.
THPs filed with the California Department of Forestry offer the public a scant 15 days to object. First, you must get on their mailing list, then wade through pages of technical jargon—not an easy task without a silviculture background.
Vincent said the “community had few options to stop the logging” of the 532 acres, including 171 acres destined to be clear-cut. Thus Yuba Nation was born.
Clear-cutting means removing every speck of plant life. It leaves the soil charred and tilled as deep as six feet, to be planted with 250 tiny seedlings per acre. The area is sprayed with glyphosate, the active ingredient in the herbicide Roundup, before and after the removal of trees and bushes.
The practice not only raises questions about its impact on wildlife and the environment, but it packs a big emotional punch with activists. That’s what galvanized opposition to SPI’s Edwards Crossing plans.
Through negotiations with the South Yuba River Citizen’s League, the Bureau of Land Management (BLM), the Tahoe National Forest, the Trust for Public Land, the California Department of Parks and Recreation and SPI, a compromise was reached. SPI agreed last summer to halt logging plans at Edwards Crossing until this year, hoping for a land exchange with the BLM near Redding.
Vincent says the ink wasn’t even dry when Yuba Nation got wind of SPI’s clear-cutting activities along a remote area of the Yuba’s Middle Fork, known as the “Wall Timber Harvest.”
Chaining themselves to logging equipment, blockading roads, occupying SPI’s Grass Valley office and tree-sitting, Yuba Nation members disrupted logging on two days.
On a budget made up of donations collected from members in a coffee can, they are going mano a mano with a lumber company headed by 71-year-old billionaire Archie Aldis “Red” Emmerson, employing aggressive direct action protest techniques.
Less extreme environmental groups have distanced themselves from Yuba Nation, yet are privately thankful for the attention the activists bring to SPI’s forest practices.
In July, Vincent garnered support beyond the radical fringe, when 25 Nevada County businesses petitioned the Board of Supervisors to ask Gov. Gray Davis to halt the environmental and economic destruction that SPI’s clear-cutting is wreaking upon the county.
Tim Feller, SPI’s Tahoe District manager, seems genuinely bewildered by the clamor.
“We’re not a cut-and-run outfit,” he said, citing extensive scientific studies and databases to back up his contentions that clear-cutting is a legitimate way to renew forests previously damaged through poor forestry practices.
Feller said SPI spent more than $5 million to compile the most comprehensive survey of forestlands in the Pacific Northwest, requiring three years and 23,000 man-days.
So last summer’s protests caught Feller by surprise, and with no public relations department, he says, “I was it.” Vincent disputes such characterizations, claiming SPI tries “to present themselves as a mom-and-pop company, but they’re the Wal-Mart of logging.”
Feller’s three-hour PowerPoint presentation displays thousands of screens of data as he demonstrates SPI’s 100-year plan. Checkerboard squares of bare earth morph into developed stands of trees as other areas are rotationally harvested in a forest quilt of infant, adolescent and middle-aged trees.
“You’d think they’d let a private landowner log 1 percent of its property,” Feller laments.
But SPI wants to clear-cut 1 percent of its acreage per year, leveling fully 70 percent of its holdings over the next 100 years. Nature’s random planting of young trees, old trees, downed logs and snags, will be replaced with even-age trees, planted in a grid.
“What SPI doesn’t tell you,” Vincent says, “is that they are taking diverse ecosystems and converting them into the equivalent of a corn crop.”
Critics of SPI’s program say clear-cutting could be the death blow to several species that are spiraling toward extinction, but not yet classified under the federal Endangered Species Act.
Feller disputes that contention with databases of projected habitat and studies of pacific fishers (small weasel-like animals) with radio collars and spotted owls with transmitters.
Vincent and others don’t buy Feller’s science, claiming “pacific fishers won’t cross clear-cuts.” Yet there have been few impartial studies to cut through that “he said/she said” nature of the debate, something AB 717 would have created.
Among the other impacts environmentalists say clear-cutting causes is erosion and the filling of streams with life-choking silt, something Fellers also uses his data to try to dispute.
But John Buckley, executive director of the Central Sierra Environmental Resource Center, has seen the impacts first-hand. A veteran firefighter and forester previously employed with the U.S. Forest Service, he has seen “soil from clear-cuts moving into buffer areas [after] heavy snowmelt or warm rains.”
Buckley visited 100 of SPI’s clear-cuts last year and participated in Forest Service clear-cuts before the practice was prohibited on federal land in 1993. He notes the significant detrimental effects on water and wildlife.
“On Duckwall Mountain, SPI treated tree plantations 10 years old with hexazinone and killed off all brush, ferns, grasses and wildflowers,” Buckley said, effectively destroying the habitat it claims it’s creating.
Hexazinone, a water-soluble herbicide banned in national forests, remains in soil and water for up to a year, according to Forest Service reports. “Most people would not prefer chemicals in their water,” Buckley says.
Opposition to clear-cutting appears to be growing with each passing month of governmental inaction.
In Calaveras County, protestors old enough to be the parents of Yuba Nation activists have demonstrated against SPI. They’ve held rallies, circulated petitions and made a quilt representing the 49 clear-cuts SPI planned near Calaveras Big Trees State Park.
After AB 717 died last year with a threatened veto from Gov. Gray Davis, several hundred environmentalists gathered at the Capitol to denounce the governor, blaming the action of SPI’s campaign contributions to Davis (a connection his spokesman denied).
And while SPI has been politically smart enough to avoid clear-cuts on land visible from highways, the high-profile activism of people like Vincent could keep this issue in the public eye.