Fighting for Giant Sequoias

The biggest living things on the planet, and very nearly the oldest, are the Giant Sequoia redwood trees in California. Lifespans of 2,000 years are common; the most ancient is 3,300 years old. And all this is just a three-hour drive east of San Francisco, in the Sierra Nevada mountains.

The huge trees made news earlier this year, when President Clinton named part of the Sequoia National Forest a national monument, and when thousands of acres of the forest were scarred by wildfires in August. The Sequoias' cousins, the only slightly smaller coastal redwoods, have gotten attention too, thanks to a young woman named Julia Butterfly Hill, who spent nearly two years living in the branches of a redwood out of concern for their future.

Now, Big Trees State Park, where white men first discovered Giant Sequoias in 1852, is threatened by clear-cutting on its borders. Fierce local opposition forced a 30-day halt to the clear-cutting near Big Trees in July. But the death of a bill that would halt clear-cutting in the state until independent scientists could evaluate its environmental effects means the plundering will continue.

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. Environmentalists counter that the higher production comes at great cost to wildlife, habitat, and the water supplies that humans and animals alike depend upon.

What is indisputable is that clear-cutting is exploding in California, and largely because of one company: Sierra Pacific Industries, the same company responsible for the clear-cuts planned on the border of Big Trees State Park. 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 landowner 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.

Data gathered by the Department of Forestry, however, reveals that Sierra Pacific's reliance on clear-cutting has skyrocketed over the past ten years. While the company's land holdings 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. It backed Republican Dan Lungren in the 1998 California governor's race. But after Democrat Gray Davis defeated Lungren, Sierra Pacific hosted a fundraiser for the new governor on July 13, 1999 -- the same day Davis's administration issued logging rules that both environmentalists and the federal government's National Marine Fisheries Service 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 spokesman for Sierra Pacific, says there is no connection between the two events. "We are interested in having good regulation," says Feller. Governor Davis's office declined requests for an interview. 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?" In fact, most of the Californians I spoke to while reporting this story were surprised to learn that clear-cutting was legal in the first place.

From the dawn of time to "discovery"

The author John Steinbeck called the Giant Sequoias "ambassadors from another time" because, as a species, they have existed since the age of the dinosaurs, some 100 million years ago. 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 Nevadas.

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 of them.

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. In 1852, 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.

Camp boss W. H. Hanford saw in these trees 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. 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 enough or strong enough to topple the tree. So Hanford hired miners from the gold camps 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 a circle 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 tree refused to fall. As if in revenge, it remained upright for another two days before giving up the ghost and, adding insult to injury, waited until the entourage was away at lunch before crashing to the forest floor.

Why the spotted owl matters

It's a five-minute walk from the Discovery Tree stump to Sierra Pacific's clear-cut unit 13. Joining me on the hike was Warren Alford, a landowner and Sierra Club activist who is leading local opposition to the project. Just on the other side of the silver metal gate marking the boundary between the clear-cut and the park was the trunk of a freshly cut incense cedar. "This is bad," Alford murmured. "Large old trees like that cedar are home to California spotted owls."

The spotted owl has become a symbol of the conflict between loggers and environmentalists. It has 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 those owls than about the 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. "It's the whole web of life, and the owl is [the creature] at the top that lets you know how that web is holding together."

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 ecosystem that could be gravely damaged by clear-cutting. In addition to the loss of habitat and wildlife, say environmentalists, clear-cutting will dump harmful sediments into creeks and lakes that provide drinking water for humans and animals alike.

Tim Feller, the Sierra Pacific spokesman, dismisses these concerns as "hot-button" rhetoric without scientific justification, adding that clear-cuts actually have environmental advantages.

The 884 acres scheduled to be clear-cut near Big Trees are not contiguous; they are individual units scattered across the landscape, averaging 19 acres each. And Louis Blumberg, a spokesman for the California Forestry Department, says that Governor Davis has hired 70 new staffers in the past year to help make sure timber-harvest plans respect environmental concerns. The extra scrutiny hasn't led to more timber-harvest plans being turned down, however. Last year, the Forestry Department approved 574 plans and rejected none.

The feds, and salmon, object

Clear-cutting is legal in California, but the logging rules which allow it have drawn widespread criticism. The National Marine Fisheries Service, for instance, has complained that the 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 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 in California. Leading the fight in the state capital has been Democratic Assembly Speaker Pro-tem Fred Keeley. A proud environmentalist, Keeley says that California needs to be much more vigilant about protecting its natural resources from the effects of logging, whether it 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."

Earlier this year, Keeley sponsored Assembly Bill 717, a timber-reform vehicle which required that citizens be fully notified of proposed timber-harvest plans, including clear-cuts, and that the plans undergo peer review for their effects on watersheds by scientists independent of the timber industry. 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 last spring, and only after language mandating civil and criminal fines for logging violations was dropped.

The Davis administration took no position on the bill; instead, it proposed its own reform plan, with less-strict review and notification provisions. Environmentalists complained that the administration plan amounted to letting the industry regulate itself. "What Governor Davis's 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," said Kevin Bundy, policy director at the Environmental Protection and Information Center, which filed suit against the California Department of Forestry in May. "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."

But Bill 717 became part of the horse-trading involved in passing the state budget in June and came out a changed creature. According to environmentalists, Governor Davis refused to embrace any part of 717, backing the current policy instead. For their part, the crafters of 717 were unwilling to dilute or abandon a reform bill they had spent two years advancing through the legislative process. The stalemate led Davis to remove funding for the bill from the budget.

Supporters brought 717 back in a shorter, simpler, more daring form. The newly amended version would have imposed a statewide moratorium on clear-cutting, beginning on January 1; the moratorium could have been lifted only after an independent scientific study of clear-cutting had been conducted and the legislature had voted clear-cutting up or down.

But California's legislative season ended on August 31, before the Senate ever considered the amended bill or Governor Davis was faced with the decision to sign or veto it.

A bleak bird's-eye view

A clear-cut can't be fully understood from ground level; the best view is an aerial one. I got a plane ride over the area surrounding Big Trees State Park with Warren Alford of the Sierra Club, who pointed out the clear-cuts that already pock-mark the area as well as the sites of yet more clear-cuts planned by Sierra Pacific.

The view from that plane was stark. 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. It was easy to understand why local opposition to the clear-cutting is fierce and growing. The Calaveras County Board of Supervisors sent a letter to Gov. Davis on June 5 asking him to re-open the public comment period concerning the clear-cut and to re-examine logging practices in California in general. Public rallies were also held, castigating Sierra Pacific for its greed and short-sightedness.

All the agitation bore some fruit. Earlier this summer, the company announced that it would halt all clear-cutting in the area for 30 days while it modified the project in response to "the concerns of Calaveras County residents." Opponents of the clear-cutting celebrated their victory, but cautioned that the fight had only just begun. The "modifications" that Sierra Pacific proposed -- changing the size of the clear-cuts and expanding water-quality monitoring after the logging was finished -- were dismissed by the Sierra Club's Alford as a transparent effort to coopt the opposition.

John Muir, the father of American environmentalism, is best known for his work to establish 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, 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 that "God cannot save these trees from sawmills and fools. This is left to the American people."

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