Timberland Productivity—A Promise Unfulfilled

Wednesday, December 13th, 2017

There are some 33 million acres of forestland in the State of California. Prior to European-American intervention, California boasted some of the most magnificent and ecologically unique, diverse, and critical forest types on the planet; from the giant sequoias of the south-western slopes of the Sierra, to the forests of the Cascade and Klamath Mountains in the north, to the coast redwoods standing sentinel watching over the rugged and expansive Pacific Coastline, California’s forest richness and diversity was unrivaled.

Nearly 200 years of intensive and mostly unregulated timber harvesting and forest land conversion and fragmentation, combined with the damaging effects of fire exclusion and forest ecosystem simplification for industrial plantations has sculpted a landscape that is very different and would likely be unrecognizable to pre-European-American indigenous populations.

California has made several attempts to reign in and constrain logging and timber harvesting on private forest lands since the earliest days of State government establishment. The very first State Board of Forestry and State Forester positions were created by the Legislature as early as 1887, with the first attempt at a State Forest Practice Act occurring in 1945. These early attempts to control logging of California’s forests were enacted to address well-recognized depletion of forest productivity and timber supply, as the original “old-growth” forests of the State were being stripped off the landscape at a frightening pace.

The modern-day Z’Berg-Negedly California Forest Practice Act of 1973 was enacted by the State Legislature in response to continual and rapid forest and timber supply depletion from over-aggressive extraction and profit-only-minded logging on private forestlands. The 1973 Act attempted to strike a precarious balance between the influence and power of the private timber industry and the needs of the State with the goal of forest management on private lands to achieve, “Maximum Sustained Production of High-Quality Timber Products,” while giving consideration to a suite of environmental, economic and social objectives, including protection of fish, wildlife, soil, water quality, employment, economic viability, and aesthetics, among other things.

Forty years later, it is clear that the careful balance contemplated has not been achieved, and that neither the productivity of our precious and irreplaceable forestlands, nor the viability of our fish, watersheds, wildlife, soil, employment and regional economies have been protected from an over-rapacious timber industry.

What happened? Agency administrative and regulatory frameworks have failed, plain and simple. To start with, the Board of Forestry never acted to adopt rules or standards to define Maximum Sustained Production of High-Quality Timber Products or to establish limits on harvest in relation to growth, or to even define acceptable standards and methods for silvicultural applications. That is, until it was forced to do so in 1994, some 20 years after creation of the Act, as a consequence of the landmark lawsuit brought by the Redwood Coast Watershed Alliance (RCWA).

The RCWA lawsuit forced the Board of Forestry to adopt rules to address Maximum Sustained Production; not by defining limits, but by allowing individual timberland owners to define their own productivity levels, constraints on productivity and their own means of achieving the self-prescribed productivity levels. What’s more, the Board of Forestry did not define “High-Quality Wood Product” claiming that forest products markets would self-define and constrain wood product quality.

The Board of Forestry created three voluntary options for private timberland owners to address how Maximum Sustained Production would be realized. For large, “industrial” timberland owners of 50,000-acres and greater, options (a) and (b) were created. “Option-(a)” directs the industry to produce the yield of timber products specified by the landowner. Which has been the primary vehicle used in the last 20 years by industrial timberland owners as opposed to “Option-(b)” a Sustained Yield Plan, and this is no small wonder. Sustained Yield Plans require preparation of an Environmental Impact Report, require assessment of cumulative impacts, and requires protection of soils, fish, wildlife, and watershed resources; “Option-(a)” requires none of this. Further, Sustained Yield Plans require public disclosure of all information and analysis considered as part of the EIR process; “Option-(a)” does not.

“Option-(a)” requires no monitoring of the proposed plan’s implementation, requires no reporting, and withholds from public disclosure almost all the information that might inform the how’s and why’s of the plan on the basis that the information is considered, “confidential trade secrets.”

Even the Department of Forestry itself, an agency always under the pressure of industry-capture, has urged the Board of Forestry several times in recent years to harmonize the options for Maximum Sustained Production and to do away with “Option-(a).” Since the Option-(a) rules don’t require provisions for monitoring, enforcement, administration or re-assessment as-necessary, CAL FIRE has a program wrought with inconsistencies and that lacks parody in application and administration.

The consequences of allowing the timber industry to self-define, self-attain, self-monitor and self-report its own forestland productivity plans is the continued depletion of forestlands and the continued depletion of timber supply, environment, infrastructure and economy. Native, diverse forests continue to be converted into sanitized mono-culture industrial fiber farm plantations that are far more susceptible to insect infestation, disease, fire, and inhibited growth from decades of soil biotic depletion. Instead of native and diverse forests, California continues to see what Sierra Pacific Industries owner Archie Aldis, “Red” Emmerson referred to as “toothpicks and match sticks,” cultivated on our hillsides.

EPIC is working to challenge the failed forest policy of allowing the industry to self-define and self-regulate its productivity standards. EPIC is actively working to question and challenge individual “Option-(a)” plans through the THP process, and is working at the policy level to persuade the Board of Forestry to take a fresh look at modernizing and harmonizing its rules governing Maximum Sustained Production. The hill is tall and the pathway is tangled in the weeds of the words, but EPIC is there, untangling the web and demonstrating to the Board and the agency that the time has come for change.

California’s forests are the best weapon the State has to combat climate change, as forests can capture or store or “sequester” carbon dioxide from the earth’s atmosphere and keep it in living green biomass such as trees and plants; however, two centuries of state-enabled forest mismanagement means that we are capturing and storing far less carbon than we should be. Taking back the reins of forestland productivity from the timber industry may be the only way to reduce the amount of atmospheric carbon and to stabilize and mitigate mass deforestation, which is increasing the greenhouse gas effect and driving climate change.

EPIC is dedicated to changing the game for our private forests, and hopefully, changing the ending when it comes to forest productivity and climate change.