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Forest Rules a Self-defeating Glut

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Timber industry officials and environmental activists warn that the state’s logging safeguards have become a bureaucratic snarl that can drag out rule-making for a decade and a half and more.

Experts say that 43 years after the enactment of the Forest Practice Act, timescales are so out of joint that the pace of environmental damage far outruns preventive action on the ground. The 1973 act’s rule book has swollen to 300 pages.

Formulating a Timber Harvest Plan for a given property is expensive – $15,000 to $60,000 per plan, says Dee Sanders of Trinity Lumber.

Critics say the regulatory framework has recoiled on itself, leaving the system effectively broken.

“There’s no doubt about that,” Sanders declared in a telephone interview.

This forbidding reality demands a legislative overhaul, according to Natalynne DeLapp, executive director of the nonprofit Environmental Protection Information Center (EPIC), and her colleague Rob DiPerna, California forest and wildlife advocate. They  have documented what they view as an “unnavigable tangle of politics, paper and process” studded with regulatory thickets. EPIC serves the five counties of Del Norte, Humboldt, Mendocino, Siskiyou and Trinity.

One of the worst holdups stemmed from a set of “road rules” first bruited by the state Board of Forestry in 1999 to ward off the impact of construction on the North Coast’s fast-declining salmon and steelhead populations. The rules did not take effect until January, 2015, a 16-year hiatus.

In another instance, the forestry board took almost 10 years, until 1994, to act on regulations to address the cumulative impacts of logging on private lands. When the panel finally did act, it issued guidance that is merely “voluntary and suggestive,” not a real regulation, according to DeLapp and DiPerna.

Neither a 10-year nor a 16-year wait is the outside limit. The watershed of the Elk River, one of Humboldt Bay’s largest tributaries, was designated impaired in 1998 under the Clean Water Act.

Yet it took the regional water board until this past month to adopt a recovery plan – a lag of 18 years. That’s typical, said DiPerna, of the voluminous and time-consuming paperwork associated with rule making. He called it a “Frankenstein’s Monster.”

The tangle can add dozens of pages to a single Timber Harvest Plan. EPIC statistics show that a harvest blueprint averages 250 to 300 pages in length and sometimes many more. Formulating a plan is an arcane, costly and laborious exercise that balks public understanding and bedevils all the stakeholders, whether landowners, foresters, scientists or citizens.

By rights, drafting a plan should take 45 to 60 days, DiPerna estimated, but some of them get stuck in the system for years. Sanders said Oregon’s system, less rigorous than California’s, takes about two weeks.

Time is not the only debit. According to DiPerna, the average base cost of a Timber Harvest Plan for a given landowner has climbed to $30,000, midway between Sanders’ $15,000 to $60,000.

The $30,000 average does not include the many more thousands of dollars spent by state agencies such as CalFire for a harvest plan’s review, approval, administration and enforcement.

There is also concern that the public is shut out. DiPerna wrote in a recent EPIC monograph, “It is nearly impossible for the average citizen to read, navigate, understand or provide meaningful comment or engagement in the Timber Harvest Plan process.” It has taken him some 20 years to become fully informed about the issue.

Ironically, the purpose of the relevant statutes, like the California Environmental Quality Act and the Forest Practice Act, was to ensure that private citizens had meaningful information about, and open access to, the management decisions that affect air, forests, water and wildlife.

Exactly the opposite, said DiPerna and DeLapp. Forest protection plays third fiddle to an Orwellian regulatory chorus which fails in any meaningful way to effect “operational change or on-the-ground protection, enhancement, restoration or conservation of public trust resources.” The bureaucracy exalts legalism, they contend.

DiPerna freely acknowledged that EPIC’s lawsuits can at times, “unwittingly, actually make the [regulatory] situation worse,” generating more time-consuming analysis and explanation. But the avenues in the environmental laws “are really all we have,” he pleaded in extenuation.

DeLapp refuted accusations that EPIC is financed by lawsuits, saying it is funded by membership donations and private foundations. The only reimbursements received are for the costs of attorneys, many of whom work pro bono. “We do not recoup costs for staff time,” she added.

The intent and effectiveness of California’s landmark environmental laws have been co-opted by state agencies that are protecting themselves, DeLapp charged. “They insulate themselves from litigation not only by public interest groups, but by private industry and contractors as well.”

Moreover, “I find it offensive when public agencies blame public interest organizations for ‘costing taxpayers money’ when they lose court cases,” said DeLapp. “When courts find in our favor, it means the agencies failed to uphold their end of the bargain. Blaming us for catching them is 100 percent inappropriate.”

What results from bureaucratic overkill is classic “analysis paralysis,” DiPerna noted, as occurred in the Elk River fiasco. None of the staff’s fundamental findings – that the river was impaired by logging – ever changed, he said, across “reports and studies and studies of reports and peer reviews and hearing after hearing on the same issues, over and over again!”

DeLapp stated that the solution lies in the consensus among timber harvest stakeholders, both industry exponents and conservationists, that the system needs a rebuild.

“Since we all agree what the problem is, we can figure out a way to turn this over. The system is designed for us to be diametrically opposed, conservation versus industry, economics versus ecology. Instead, we should be able to collaborate and mutually develop our own solutions.”

Fresh legislation could make them a reality.


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