• picture
  • picture
  • picture
  • picture
Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Clear-Cut Conundrum

Air Date: Week of

Living On Earth’s Mark Hertsgaard (HURTS-guard) travels to the Sierra Nevada to explore the controversy over clear-cutting in California forests. Dozens of small clear cuts are planned near a famous stand of giant sequoia redwoods, and that’s prompted renewed scrutiny of California's practice of clear-cutting.


CURWOOD: Drive three hours east of San Francisco and you'll find some of the biggest trees on Earth. The giant sequoia redwoods made news last month when President Clinton designated part of Sequoia National Forest a national monument and protected it from logging. Now the ecosystem of another famous stand of giant sequoias is being altered by clear-cutting. Living on Earth's Mark Hertsgaard used to live in the area near Big Tree State Park, and he returned there recently to investigate. He discovered that clear-cutting is becoming more prevalent in California. This has provoked a legislative showdown this week that may force California Governor Grey Davis to choose between the environmentalists who endorsed them and the timber industry that helps to fund his campaign.


ARMSTRONG: This is a 20-acre clear-cut right here, and some of this timber is over four foot in diameter, and it's grown that big in less than 100 years.


HERTSGAARD: Jim Armstrong is a logger for Sierra Pacific Industries. This sunny morning he's the crew boss at a clear-cut just outside Big Tree State Park. In the maw of his bulldozer is a massive sugar pine whose sap is still fresh. (To Armstrong) It's a wonderful smell, isn't it?

ARMSTRONG: Makes wonderful high-quality lumber here. This is window frames, door frames, sash work, molding-grade material right there. And it's a continuously-growing demand worldwide.

HERTSGAARD: Sierra Pacific Industries is California's biggest timber company by far, and the nation's second largest private landowner. The company's reliance on clear-cutting has skyrocketed in the 1990s. Its land holdings roughly doubled, but its clear-cutting increased 24 times, to nearly 24,000 acres a year. The company plans 49 clear-cuts like this one near the giant sequoias of Big Tree State Park in the Sierra Nevada mountains. I used to live in these woods, so when I heard about the plans, I went back to see for myself.


HERTSGAARD: I think this is my favorite part of the trail, is we're now going downhill into the grove. These wonderful dogwoods, these white blossoms now are just beginning to fade at the spring. Sugar pines with their long pine cones. That pine cone there is what, about maybe a foot long?

(Flowing water)

ARMSTRONG: And there's our first great magnificent specimen of a giant sequoia. Now, one of the things I love about giant sequoias, listen to this.


ARMSTRONG: That's me banging on the outer bark of this tree. The bark of the giant sequoias can be as much as two feet thick, and that's part of what gives them their incredible girth. It takes 20 people with arms outstretched to encircle a giant sequoia, and they can live for 2,000 years or more. The largest tree in this grove was called the Discovery Tree. Up ahead, you see what's left of it: a gigantic stump and fallen trunk. It would probably be the biggest living thing on Earth today had gold rush miners not cut it down in 1853 to create a tourist attraction. Sitting here on the stump you can see the part of the tree that they cut off and how they did it. They didn't use a saw, because there was no saw in the world big enough for this job. So they literally drilled the tree down with metal augers about the size of a man's fist. And you can also see what they did afterwards. This was a dance floor. They made that part of it into a double-lane bowling alley.

HERTSGAARD:Sierra Pacific's clear-cutting does not directly endanger the remaining giant sequoias in this part of the Sierra. They're permanently protected inside the state park. But the trees are part of a forest ecosystem being fragmented by the cuts. A five-minute walk from the Discovery stump is Sierra Pacific's Clear-Cut Unit 13, just across the border of the park. I hiked over there with Warren Alford, a local landowner and Sierra Club activist.


ALFORD: Now this is bad. This is -- what we have right in front of us on the very edge of the park is a large, old cedar that has been freshly cut. I was down here two days ago and that was standing.

HERTSGAARD: Warren Alfred says large trees like that cedar provide crucial habitat for spotted owls and other wildlife needed for a healthy forest.

ALFORD: The owl is one of those indicator species. It's the canary in a coal mine. It's the whole web of life and the owl is at the top that lets you know how that web is holding together.

HERTSGAARD: Mr. Alfred says the clear-cuts here are weakening that web, and there is concern that they may also increase soil erosion, which can carry harmful sediments into creeks and downstream rivers. The Sierra Club wants to end clear-cutting in the area, and to re-open public comment on the project. But Sierra Pacific Industries calls concerns about erosion a hot-button emotional issue. They say there's no documentation for claims that clear-cutting harms water quality in California. And SPI forester Tim Feller says that when it comes to maintaining habitat, the small 20-acre clear-cuts planned for these woods actually have environmental advantages.

FELLER: If we were doing selection logging like it has been logged in the past, we would probably cover all 10,000 acres in the next ten years.

HERTSGAARD: Instead, Mr. Feller says, Sierra Pacific's 884 acres of scattered clear-cuts will leave 90 percent of the company's land in the area untouched.

FELLER: 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 and, you know, we're looking at it from a science viewpoint.

HERTSGAARD: Clear-cuts are legal in California, but the logging rules which allow them have drawn widespread criticism. The National Marine Fisheries Service, for instance, has repeatedly complained that California's forestry rules don't do enough to protect valuable fish species from the effects of erosion. Four years ago the federal agency listed the cohoe salmon as a threatened species. Recently it added steelhead trout to the list, provoking an outcry from commercial and recreational fishermen. A scientific panel appointed jointly by the state and federal government has called for stricter logging rules, sparking fierce political battles in the state capital.

(Flowing water; bird song; fade to a milling crowd)

HERTSGAARD: Democrat Fred Keeley is the second ranking member of the California Assembly. He sponsored a bill to reform the state's logging practices.

KEELEY: If this was a situation where someone timber-harvested on their private land and there was no effect beyond the boundaries of their private property, maybe you could make some argument that the state shouldn't have significant oversight. But 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.

HERTSGAARD: Mr. Keely's bill would require that citizens be fully notified of proposed timber harvest plans, including clear-cuts, and that the plans be reviewed by independent scientists.

KEELEY: I believe that we have an obligation, one generation to the next, to be good stewards of our land and our natural resources. And that we ought not to be involved in a species-by-species serial killing.

HERTSGAARD: Mr. Keeley's bill wouldn't ban clear-cutting. But it would expose clear-cutting to greater scrutiny, and would likely mean it would happen less often. Industry opposes the bill and it passed the Assembly by just three votes. Now, logging reform is bound up in the end game of the state budget, which must be passed by June fifteenth. The administration of Governor Grey Davis has proposed its own reform plan, but with less strict review and notification provisions than Keely's. Environmentalists say it amounts to letting industry regulate itself. They draw a connection between the plan and Governor Davis receiving $129,000 from a timber industry fundraiser that Sierra Pacific hosted last July. Five months later Governor Davis named a Sierra Pacific executive to the State Forestry Board. Sierra Pacific's Tim Feller says those two events are unrelated.

FELLER: We are interested in having good regulation, and it happens to be coincidental with the fundraiser. But we are involved in politics. Most everybody is.

HERTSGAARD: Governor Davis's office declined repeated requests for an on-tape interview, but I did get to ask his press office one question. This was it: How can Californians be confident the Governor will fairly balance environmental and timber industry arguments when the industry has showered him with campaign contributions? Spokesman Byron Tucker checked with his superiors and had this reply. Quote, "Your question didn't go over very well here." Mr. Tucker continued, "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?" End quote.
Louis Blumberg of the Department of Forestry did agree to speak for the administration, and he says the state is already getting tougher on the timber industry.

BLUMBERG: The administration recognized from the moment it took office that the forest practice rules that were in place at that time were not adequate. The administration has adopted a comprehensive, multi-faceted 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.

HERTSGAARD: But the new scrutiny hasn't led to more timber harvest plans being turned down. Last year, the Forestry Department approved 564 plans and rejected none. Still, Louis Bloomberg denies the department rubber-stamps the plans.

BLUMBERG: 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.

HERTSGAARD: But there are questions about whether the law was met in the case of the clear-cuts near Big Trees. Representatives from both the state park and the local water company say they didn't receive formal notification of the timber plan, though Sierra Pacific's plan cites the men by name as having been consulted. Simon Granville is general director of the Calaveras County Water District.

GRANVILLE: This clear-cutting operation was one that hit us by surprise. They just post their notices over at the county offices, which are about a mile away from us. If you happen to go by where they post these notices, then you're notified. Otherwise, we wouldn't have heard about it.

HERTSGAARD: Not so, says Sierra Pacific's Tim Feller.

FELLER: They were notified. In fact, they were notified twice. We called them. We finally went down and made a personal visit to them and asked them if they had any concerns, and they said no. So I don't know who's telling the truth here or not, but I know as a registered professional forester there are rules and regulations which govern the type of notification that we have to do. And we follow those to a tee; we have too much to risk if we don't.

(Loud plane engine)

HERTSGAARD: A clear-cut can't be fully understood from ground level. You need an aerial view.

(Voices on radio)

HERTSGAARD: I took a ride over the clear-cut near Big Tree State Park with Warren Alford of the Sierra Club. (To Alford) Okay, now aren't those sequoias we're seeing down there below us?

ALFORD: Yeah, actually those are. And you can see by the big red trunk and just the great big branches that stick up into the air, that's definitely a sequoia.

HERTSGAARD: So that's the Big Tree State Park. And how close is that to the clear-cuts that are planned?

ALFORD: You're talking about 50 feet. 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, and just pockmarked through this area.

HERTSGAARD: I had walked the forest 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 the view from above doesn't tell the whole story. The company says clear-cuts, when done properly, can actually keep forests healthier than selective logging. And even some people entrusted with protecting the giant sequoias agree that responsible clear-cuts can work. Wayne Harrison is a resource ecologist at Big Tree State Park.

HARRISON: We've preferred them to broad-scale selective cutting, because it typically, we felt, resulted in the long run in a more diverse forest age structure. And that in turn created the diversity of forest habitat types.

HERTSGAARD: But the local board of supervisors has asked Governor Davis to re-examine logging practices in the area around the park. And most Californians I spoke to while reporting this story were surprised to learn that clear-cutting is still legal in the state. Ultimately, it's up to them to decide whether it should stay that way. Forest Department spokesman Louis Bloomberg.

BLUMBERG: We have not been served with a request to ban clear-cutting. If banning clear-cutting is important to the people of California, they have a remedy through the legislative process to seek redress.

(Bird song)

HERTSGAARD: John Muir, the mountaineer and father of American environmentalism, is best known for establishing nearby 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 saw mills and fools. This is left to the American people."

(Bird song)

HERTSGAARD: For Living on Earth, I'm Mark Hertsgaard.

(Bird song, fading to music up and under)

CURWOOD: Our report on California's clear-cutting controversy was produced by Nathan Johnson.



Living on Earth wants to hear from you!

Living on Earth
62 Calef Highway, Suite 212
Lee, NH 03861
Telephone: 617-287-4121
E-mail: comments@loe.org

Newsletter [Click here]

Donate to Living on Earth!
Living on Earth is an independent media program and relies entirely on contributions from listeners and institutions supporting public service. Please donate now to preserve an independent environmental voice.

Living on Earth offers a weekly delivery of the show's rundown to your mailbox. Sign up for our newsletter today!

Sailors For The Sea: Be the change you want to sea.

Creating positive outcomes for future generations.

Innovating to make the world a better, more sustainable place to live. Listen to the race to 9 billion

The Grantham Foundation for the Protection of the Environment: Committed to protecting and improving the health of the global environment.

Contribute to Living on Earth and receive, as our gift to you, an archival print of one of Mark Seth Lender's extraordinary wildlife photographs. Follow the link to see Mark's current collection of photographs.

Buy a signed copy of Mark Seth Lender's book Smeagull the Seagull & support Living on Earth