The California chainsaw massacre

Clear-cutting is tearing up forests in the nation's most environmentally aware state, and opponents blame the timber industry's ties to Gov. Gray Davis.

Published June 9, 2000 7:00PM (EDT)

The biggest trees on Earth are just a three-hour drive east of San Francisco, in California's Sierra Nevada mountains. Giant sequoia redwoods are in fact the biggest living things on the planet, and very nearly the oldest as well. Lifespans of 2,000 years are common; the most ancient specimen is 3,300 years old.

Giant sequoias made news last month when President Clinton named part of the Sequoia National Forest a national monument. The sequoias' cousins, the slightly smaller coastal redwoods, recently got attention too, thanks to the intrepid tree-sitter Julia Butterfly Hill. Now, Big Trees State Park, where California settlers first discovered giant sequoias in 1852, is threatened by clear-cutting on its borders.

Clear-cutting is a logging practice that involves felling every tree on a given plot of land, scraping the land bare, spraying it with herbicides and replanting it as a tree plantation. Timber industry officials say that clear-cutting makes for healthier, more productive forests. Most environmentalists counter that the higher production comes at great cost to wildlife, habitat and the water supplies humans and animals depend upon.

What is indisputable is that clear-cutting is exploding in California, provoking a legislative showdown next week that may force Gov. Gray Davis to choose between environmentalists who once endorsed him and a timber industry that now bankrolls him. Fred Keeley, the second-ranking Democrat in the state Assembly and the sponsor of a logging reform bill that would discourage clear-cutting, says he expects Davis to work in good faith to pass a strong law. But he admits that Davis tends to see forestry issues through an industry-friendly lens. To Davis, says Keeley, "forestry is part of agriculture. Trees are just big, tall crops."

Clear-cutting is increasing in California largely because of one company, Sierra Pacific Industries, the same company that is responsible for the clear-cuts planned on the border of Big Trees State Park. "Clear-cutting isn't an industry-wide trend," says Dean Lucke, the assistant director for forest practices at the California Department of Forestry. "But Sierra Pacific controls such a large amount of land [in California] that its clear-cutting raises the industry's average."

Sierra Pacific Industries owns a whopping 1.5 million acres of California's forests, mainly in the Sierra Nevada. That's enough to make Sierra Pacific the second largest private land owner in the United States (behind media mogul Ted Turner), even though it owns no land outside of California. The company is privately held and thus not required to release figures on revenues and profits (though Forbes magazine recently ranked Sierra Pacific's CEO, Red Emerson, the 61st wealthiest person in America).

Data gathered by the Department of Forestry, however, reveals that Sierra Pacific's reliance on clear-cutting has skyrocketed over the past 10 years. While the company's landholdings roughly doubled, its clear-cutting increased by a factor of 24, to nearly 24,000 acres a year.

Sierra Pacific has also become more politically active. Like most of the timber industry, it backed Republican Dan Lundgren in the 1998 governor's race. But after Davis defeated Lundgren, Sierra Pacific hosted a fundraiser for the new governor on July 13 -- the same day Davis' administration issued logging rules that the federal government's National Marine Fisheries Service and environmentalists complained were too weak to protect coho salmon and other threatened species. The fundraiser netted Davis $129,000 in contributions from Sierra Pacific and other timber industry companies. Five months later, Davis appointed Sierra Pacific executive Mark Bosetti to the state Board of Forestry.

Tim Feller, a forester and spokesman for Sierra Pacific Industries, says there is no connection between the two events. It only makes sense, Feller says, to appoint timber industry experts to the board. "We are interested in having good regulation. It happens to be coincidental with the fundraiser. But we are involved in politics; most everybody is."

Davis' office declined requests for an interview for this story. But I finally did get to ask spokesman Byron Tucker the following question: "How can Californians be confident that the governor will fairly balance environmental and timber industry arguments, when the industry has showered him with campaign contributions?"

Tucker checked with his superiors and sternly replied, "Your question didn't go over very well here." He added, "You're making a connection between campaign contributions a year ago and a decision being made now? Clear-cutting is legal in California, so what's the beef?"

"Of course they're not going to talk to you," state Forestry Department spokesman Louis Blumberg exclaimed, when he learned Davis' press office was stonewalling requests for an interview. "This is a losing issue for them. They've got both the environmentalists and the industry mad at them."

I used to live near Big Trees State Park, so when I heard about the clear-cutting planned for the area, I went back to see it for myself. My funky old cabin was still there, buried so deep in the woods that I used to see bears on my front porch as often as I saw people. And it was still just a 40 minute hike over the ridge to the giant sequoias in the park's North Grove.

Even at the height of springtime's exuberance, when Douglas squirrels squawk a counterpoint to the insistent tapping of white-headed woodpeckers and dogwoods splash color among the awakening undergrowth, this grove is pervaded by a deep sense of calm. The largest giant sequoias stand over 300 feet tall and measure as much as 32 feet in diameter near the ground; it takes 20 adults with their arms outstretched to encircle one. The limbs of giant sequoias resemble the trunks of ordinary trees, and their spongy bark can be as much as 2 feet thick. Slap your palm against it, and the bark makes a "tunk-tunk-tunk" sound, like a drum.

The author John Steinbeck called giant sequoias "ambassadors from another time" because, as a species, they have existed since the age of the dinosaurs, some 100 million years ago. Redwoods and dinosaurs, perhaps the largest plants and animals this planet has ever known, were the dominant life forms throughout the Northern Hemisphere for tens of millions of years. The sequoias' geographical reach has shrunk over time, however, and today they grow naturally only in some 75 groves scattered along the western slopes of the Sierra Nevada.

Giant sequoias live so long because they are virtually indestructible. Fire cannot kill them -- their bark is fire resistant -- and their root systems encompass an entire acre of soil, so they can outlast even punishing droughts. Native Americans considered giant sequoias sacred and would not even touch them. Whites first discovered them in 1852, when a hunter named Augustus T. Dowd literally stumbled upon them when chasing a wounded grizzly bear into the forest. This was during the California gold rush, and when the boys back at camp heard Dowd's story, they naturally journeyed up to see for themselves.

Capt. W.H. Hanford, camp boss, saw a chance to strike it rich by turning the site into a tourist resort. To attract customers, he planned to fell the largest tree in the grove, cut a huge slab out of it, and display it like a circus freak in a traveling exhibition to San Francisco, New York and London.

Hanford set his aim on the Discovery Tree, supposedly the first tree Dowd had seen. But there was a problem: No saw or ax in the world was long and strong enough to topple the tree. So Hanford hired five miners from the gold camps who decided to fell the tree by drilling holes in it with long metal augers, as wide as a man's fist. After 20 days of drilling, the miners had punched an uninterrupted line of shafts around the entire circumference of the great tree.

Hanford invited a group of well-to-do ladies and gentlemen up to witness the spectacle, but the moment everyone was waiting for turned out to hold a maddening surprise: The tree refused to fall. As if in revenge, the Discovery Tree remained upright for another two days before giving up the ghost. Adding insult to injury, it waited until the assembled entourage was away at lunch before crashing to the forest floor.

Undeterred, Hanford pressed forward with his plans, including carving a saloon and bowling alley into the tree's fallen trunk. The Discovery Tree stump was converted into a dance floor big enough to accommodate a dozen waltzing couples. Soon, Hanford was sending handbills far and wide, inviting the curious to take the daily stagecoach ride from Sacramento City to see his extraordinary "Vegetable Monsters."

It's a five-minute walk from the Discovery Tree stump to clear-cut unit 13. It's important to note that Sierra Pacific's clear-cutting does not directly endanger the giant sequoias; they enjoy permanent protection inside Big Trees State Park. But the Sequoias are part of a larger forest ecosystem, and some observers fear that ecosystem will be gravely damaged by clear-cutting.

Warren Alford is a landowner and Sierra Club activist who is leading the local opposition to the project. He joined me on the short hike from the Discovery stump down a park trail that dead-ended at the silver metal gate marking the boundary between the park and unit 13. An incense cedar trunk immediately caught Alford's attention.

"This, this is bad," he murmured. "What we have here is a large old cedar that has been freshly cut. I was down here two days ago and it was still standing." Large old trees like that cedar, Alford said, provide crucial habitat for California spotted owls and other key indicator species of a healthy forest ecosystem.

"The California spotted owl needs about 5,000 acres for a home range," he said. "The park is about 6,000 acres. So for the owls to nest and forage successfully, these areas right here on the edge of the park are very important. And this is obviously going to be clear-cut."

The spotted owl has become a symbol of the conflict between loggers and environmentalists. It's been cited for years in court cases as a reason to restrict logging in the Pacific Northwest, but loggers often complain that environmentalists seem to care more about the owls than about loggers and their families. Alford, however, calls the owl "one of those indicator species, the canary in the coal mine," that shows whether an ecosystem is healthy or not.

"Most of the species in a forest ecosystem are very hard for wildlife biologists to track," he continues. "But they can observe and count owls, and by studying them, the biologists are able to calculate how many of the owls' prey and other species inhabit the ecosystem."

We hopped into a truck to check out the rest of the scheduled clear-cut. After driving a few miles down Highway 4, we cut back into the forest and followed U.S. Forest Service roads past White Pines Lake. A vital source of drinking water for Calaveras County, the lake is fed by San Antonio Creek, the main waterway in the 10,000-acre watershed due to be clear-cut. Environmentalists and local residents worry that clear-cutting will dump into the lake sediments that will harm water quality.

The truck jostled wildly as it bounced over the ruts and gullies of the old logging roads that snaked across the watershed. After a few minutes, we came to a large clearing dotted with 10-foot-tall piles of "slash" -- the limbs, roots, bark and other scraps that accumulate during a logging operation. We were getting close.

We nosed the truck around a bend, across a dried-out creek, around another bend and suddenly there it was: an active clear-cutting zone. A snorting yellow bulldozer was backing across the road with two big trees clamped in its beak. The roar of a chainsaw, alternating between a low, coughing rumble and a high, piercing shriek, broke across the land. On the hillside to our left, not a single tree was left standing, only a few splintered stumps that a tractor was now plowing into slash heaps.

Jim Armstrong, the leader of the three-man work crew, hopped off his bulldozer and agreed to answer some questions.

"This is a 20-acre clear-cut right here," said Armstrong. "And some of this timber is over 4 foot in diameter, and it's grown that big in less than 100 years."

In the maw of Armstrong's bulldozer was a massive sugar pine whose sap was still fresh. I leaned over to have a whiff.

"It's a wonderful smell, isn't it?" said Armstrong. "Makes wonderful, high-quality lumber. This is window frames, door frames, sash work, molding-grade material right there. And it's a continuously growing demand worldwide for wood and wood products."

Armstrong was proud to have been born and raised in the vicinity, and he warned that over-regulation of timber harvesting in California would only drive the industry, and the jobs it provides, overseas. That would be economically stupid, he argued, but also an environmental mistake, since overseas loggers were much less conscientious than he and his co-workers are. "We have the toughest logging regulations in the world in California," he exclaimed.

Armstrong's argument was later echoed by his colleagues at Sierra Pacific -- no surprise -- but also by officials of the Davis administration.

"We're unaware of any other state that has banned clear-cutting," said Louis Blumberg, a spokesman for the California Department of Forestry, which issues the permits required for all timber harvesting in the state, whether on public or private land. As for the clear-cut planned near Big Trees, Stanley Young of the state's Natural Resources Agency emphasized that the 884 acres scheduled to be clear-cut are not contiguous; rather, they are individual units scattered across the landscape. "The average size is 19 acres, and they're spread through a watershed covering 9,000 acres," he said.

These smaller clear-cuts actually have environmental advantages, according to Feller, the Sierra Pacific spokesman. He says the San Antonio Creek watershed actually covers 14,000 acres, of which Sierra Pacific owns 10,000. "If we were doing selection logging, like [that watershed] has been logged in the past, we would probably cover all 10,000 acres in the next 10 years," Feller told me. "But by doing clear-cutting, we'll be able to only touch about 10 percent of the total acreage ... So it's a lighter hand on the watershed, and sets us up for developing kind of a mosaic of wildlife habitat."

"The clear-cutting issue is a sensitive one because it's emotional," Feller added. "We're looking at it from a science viewpoint." For example, Feller dismisses the criticism that clear-cutting increases soil erosion as "a hot-button emotional issue" that environmentalists push despite the lack of "documentation for [their] claims." Feller says that a Department of Forestry study of 150 clear-cuts is finding that, when clear-cutting rules are properly followed, which is about 95 percent of the time, "there are no problems with erosion."

"We know they're not the prettiest things to look at," Feller acknowledged about the 49 clear-cut units Sierra Pacific plans for the area around Big Trees State Park. "But we also know that they green up over time, and after a few years, you won't be able to tell the difference between an area that's been clear-cut and one that hasn't."

Clear-cutting is legal in California, but the logging rules that allow it have drawn widespread criticism, and not just from environmentalists. The federal government's National Marine Fisheries Service, for instance, has repeatedly complained that California's rules don't do enough to protect valuable fish species from the effects of soil erosion.

Four years ago, spurred by lawsuits by environmentalists, the federal agency listed the coho salmon as a threatened species. Recently, it added steelhead trout to the list, provoking an outcry from commercial and recreational fishermen alike, since it meant they could no longer be caught. For a state as dependent on aquatic resources, tourism and recreational activities as California is, the economic implications of such listings can be profound.

The economic argument and pressure from the federal government have given advocates of logging reform an opening. A scientific review panel appointed jointly by the administration of former Republican Gov. Pete Wilson and the National Marine Fisheries Service has called for stricter logging rules. The current rules expire at the end of this year, further increasing pressure on lawmakers in the state capital to fashion a replacement.

The upshot is a fierce political battle centering on Assembly Bill 717, the reform vehicle sponsored by Democratic Assembly Speaker pro Tem Fred Keeley. A proud environmentalist, Keeley says he believes that "forestry can take place in a responsible manner, but we're falling short of that at the moment."

California needs to be more vigilant about protecting its natural resources from the effects of logging, says Keeley, whether that logging occurs on private or public land. "The fact is that timber harvesting is an activity which directly affects public-trust resources. The streams and creeks and rivers are not private property."

Keeley's bill would require that citizens be fully notified of proposed timber harvest plans, including clear-cuts, and that the plans undergo peer review by scientists independent of the timber industry for their effects on watersheds. The bill would not ban clear-cutting, but it would expose it to greater scrutiny and probably mean it would happen less often. Opposed by the timber industry, the bill passed the full Assembly by just three votes, and only after language mandating civil and criminal fines for logging violations was dropped.

"The timber industry in California has an enormous amount of political power," says Keeley, "frankly, far out of scale with their economic position in the state. They oftentimes partner up with the California Farm Bureau and others and together they form a very, very formidable bloc."

The Davis administration has taken no position on Keeley's bill; instead, it has proposed its own reform plan, but with less strict provisions for review and notification. Environmentalists say the administration plan amounts to letting industry regulate itself.

"What Gov. Davis' plan would do is let the timber companies gather their own data [about the likely effects of logging on watersheds] and then write their own rules about how to proceed," says Kevin Bundy, policy director at the Environmental Protection and Information Center. The center filed suit against the California Department of Forestry last month, charging that the state's failure to regulate logging adequately is killing coho salmon in violation of the federal Endangered Species Act. "What bill 717 would do is guarantee that the process is based on sound science and that the public has a role in commenting on the proceedings."

Blumberg, the Forestry Department spokesman, says the Davis administration is already getting tougher on the timber industry: "This administration recognized from the time it took office that forest practice rules were inadequate. The administration has adopted a comprehensive, multifaceted strategy to deal with this problem. In last year's budget Governor Davis provided funding for 70 new field staff to oversee and monitor timber harvest plans."

But the new scrutiny hasn't led to more timber harvest plans being turned down. Last year, the Forestry Department approved 574 plans and rejected none. Blumberg denies that the department rubber-stamps the plans, explaining, "We don't approve or disapprove plans because we like or dislike them. Our legal mandate is to work with the landowners to ensure that their plans meet environmental laws."

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A clear-cut can't be fully taken in at ground level. The best view is an aerial one. I got a plane ride over the clear-cut near Big Trees with Warren Alford of the Sierra Club. We took off from Calaveras County airport in a bush plane piloted by Jim Armstrong, who soon had us bouncing among the air currents 2,000 feet above the Sierra foothills. The mighty Stanislaus River was off to our right, and looking down from the back seat, I was able to pick out below me the tiny clearing and pond beside my old cabin in the woods. I knew the Big Trees were just over the next ridge.

I asked Alford how close the park is to the planned clear-cuts.

"You're talking about 50 feet," he replied. "I could hit it easily with a rock and I don't have a very good arm. All along this canyon wall on each of these little tributaries are going to be these 23 acre clear-cuts. Again that's going to be two or three football fields in size, just pockmarked through this area."

I had walked the forests below me hundreds of times, but that plane ride showed me a whole new side of them. The contrast between the rich green of the trees and the bare red clay of past clear-cuts reminded me of a golf course fairway that had been overrun by too many sand traps. Sierra Pacific says that the view from above doesn't tell the whole story, that when clear-cuts are done properly, they can actually keep forests healthier than selective logging can.

And even some people entrusted with protecting the giant sequoias agree that responsible clear-cuts can work -- although theirs is a minority view among environmentalists. "We prefer them to large-scale selective cutting because they result, in the long run, in a more diverse forest age structure ... and that in turn creates a diversity of habitat types which of course benefits wildlife," says Wayne Harrison, a resource ecologist at Big Trees State Park.

Nevertheless, local opposition to the clear-cut near Big Trees is growing. The Calaveras County Board of Supervisors voted Monday to send a letter to Davis asking him to reopen the public comment period concerning the clear-cut and to reexamine logging practices in general in California. The following night, a reported 435 citizens convened at the local middle school for a town meeting about the proposed clear-cut. They angrily criticized the local Forestry Department official who had approved the timber harvest plan for the area.

Meanwhile, most Californians I spoke to while reporting this story were surprised to learn that clear-cutting is legal in the first place. Ultimately, it's up to them to decide whether it should stay that way. "We have not been served with a request to ban clear-cutting," Blumberg says. "If banning clear-cutting is important to the people of California, they have a remedy through the legislative process to seek redress."

John Muir, mountaineer and the father of American environmentalism, is best known for establishing Yosemite National Park. But Muir also fought on behalf of the giant sequoias at Big Trees with his pamphlet, "And the Vandals Danced Upon the Stump." Now, modern loggers are poised to clear-cut 884 acres on the border of the park where the vandals once danced. Muir credited God with saving the giant sequoias "through all the eventful centuries since Christ's time." But, he warned, "God cannot save these trees from sawmills and fools. This is left to the American people."

By Mark Hertsgaard

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