Redwood harvest: logging in the Santa Cruz mountains
Publication Date: Wednesday Nov 27, 1996

Redwood harvest: logging in the Santa Cruz mountains

Could the clearcutting common in Northern California happen here? It already has, and loggers and environmentalists say it won't happen again

by Heather Rock Woods

Century-old redwood trees tower overhead as the pickup truck from Big Creek Lumber Company lurches down on a steep logging road on the western side of Skyline Boulevard. Mike Jani, chief forester for Big Creek, stops the truck to point out several stumps, salmon-red in the center, that his fallers cut between August and early November.

Already, one stump is showing the regenerative powers of redwood: delicate green shoots surround the stump, sprouting from the former tree's root system. (The tree's botanical name, Sempervirens, means ever living.)

To prevent erosion, Big Creek has scattered rice straw and planted rye grass on the logged areas and skid roads. A fawn grazes on the new grass.

This is a "logged" canyon, located about 45 minutes from downtown Palo Alto. But this scene is a far cry from the kinds of barren, clear-cut landscapes that many may visualize when the term "logging" is brought to mind today. The difference between this area and most nearby protected parks in the Santa Cruz mountains would probably be lost on the casual hiker.

"I wish I could show this to everyone in the three-county area. There would be a lot less hype about logging," Jani said.

But this has not always been the case in this forested mountain range where grizzly bears were once more numerous than old-growth redwoods are today.

Logging was different before the turn of the century, when clearcutting stripped the old-growth forests throughout the Santa Cruz mountains. That era is evident in the old, thick stumps surrounded by clumps and circles of regenerated redwood trees.

The desolated slopes had recovered by the 1930s--to an extent--and the logging industry picked up steam again. Besides a few remnant old growth redwoods--trees up to 2,000 years old--the Santa Cruz mountains are now forested in second- and even third-growth trees.

Today, the mountains are logged more sustainably, and the trade is increasing its pace in a strong economy with a high demand for lumber.

And, unlike in the forests of Northern California--where environmentalists have been battling Pacific Lumber Company's plans to log parts of the Headwaters Complex, the largest unprotected redwood forest in the United States--environmental groups consider the local timber industry relatively responsible.

The main reason is because San Mateo, Santa Cruz and Santa Clara counties are governed by the strictest logging rules in the state. The special rules prohibit clearcutting and limit how often an area can be logged, how many trees can be cut, and how much living material must remain.

For contrast, in Humboldt and Del Norte counties, logging practices are "more destructive. There are massive clearcuts, and they don't pay attention to buffer zones along creeks," said Peter Drekmeier, director of Bay Area Action in Palo Alto.

The Bay Area's large and environmentally conscious population is partly responsible for the special rules here.

"Around here we're pretty diligent about looking at timber operations," said Julia Bott, director of the Loma Prieta Chapter of the Sierra Club based in Palo Alto. Bott is one of the people who keeps track of the local logging industry.

"San Mateo County and the local office of the California Department of Forestry do follow up, because there's political pressure from a very involved community and and high visibility."

"I like to think that we have a pretty good relationship with most of the mainstream environmental groups," said Jani.

Big Creek recently received "green" certification for its environmentally sound and sustainable practices, he said.

Big Creek also runs the only remaining mill from Big Sur to San Francisco, and gets all of its logs from the Santa Cruz mountains. Big Creek aims to mill 13 million board feet a year, lumber that is sold almost entirely in the Bay Area.

"I think we're doing the very best work that can be done, and probably some of the best harvesting in the state happens in the Santa Cruz Mountains," Jani said. "That's why a lot of times we're held up as the example."

But expanded harvesting is creating problems, especially for land preservation groups that have to compete to buy forested land, and for the increasing populations of mountain residents who face logging near or literally in their back yards.

"We're not specifically opposed to logging (on private land), but we do have concerns about how and where it's done," Bott said.

The 19th century loggers probably never imagined they would one day clear the slopes of the Santa Cruz mountains. Felling a single giant took days with hand saws and axes. To make their job easier, loggers cut waist-high notches--still visible today on some old stumps--where they suspended springboards. By standing on the boards, they could avoid cutting across the wider base, which didn't have lumber quality grain anyway.

"The 19th century era has a lot of romantic qualities. Trucks and tractors and chainsaws remove the bigger-than-life quality of trying to take down huge trees, reduce them, and mill them with very primitive equipment," said Kenneth Fisher, a 19th century logging historian who lives in Kings Mountain. Fisher runs a small logging museum in his Kings Mountain Country Store on Skyline Boulevard.

Commercial logging really began here in the 1850s, Fisher said, when the Gold Rush caused the population of San Francisco to explode. It peaked in the 1880s, thanks to the invention of the steam donkey, a steam engine on big skids that could pull down trees and drag them, Fisher said.

Before steam donkeys, oxen dragged logs to the mill on skid roads built in dry creekbeds. The crews used gunpowder to split the 10-foot-diameter trees lengthwise so the logs could be cut with a 5-foot circular blade.

Some 1,000 men and up to 20 small steam-powered mills worked in a given season at the confluence of creeks in steep narrow canyons between San Francisco and Santa Cruz, Fisher said.

By 1890, the only old growth redwoods remaining were those on inaccessible or preserved pockets of land, and those with twisted trunks, low branches and other signs that the wood didn't have perfectly straight grain.

From Redwood City, named for logs that were shipped from the town's port, residents could see only one or two old-growth redwoods at the top of Skyline, because the slopes were bare, Fisher said. One of those trees, Methuselah, is still standing, an estimated 1,800 years old and 14-feet in diameter.

Ironically, most of the redwood lumber taken out of the Santa Cruz mountains was used to build San Francisco homes, many of which fell victim to fire during the later 1800s. Finally, most of San Francisco's dwellings burned to the ground as a result of fires caused by the 1906 earthquake.

"The truly tremendous irony of this logging activity is they saw most of this great effort go up in smoke," said Fisher, standing at the base of Methuselah.

"Most of the old growth that ever existed is gone, and the rest is almost all permanently protected," he said.

These days, the Santa Cruz mountains are heavily protected. Tens of thousands of acres can't be logged at all. The numerous county and state parks and Midpeninsula Regional Open Space District preserves are off-limits. And groups like the Sempervirens Fund of Los Altos and Peninsula Open Space Trust of Menlo Park continue to buy land for conservation, using private donations and government matching funds. "A great deal of San Mateo County is already protected," said the Sierra Club's Bott.

Bott, Big Creek's Jani and the Midpeninsula Open Space District agree that the remaining unprotected land in the Santa Cruz mountains is more likely to be developed than logged.

Except for places like Big Basin, most of the protected land here has all been stripped of old-growth.

"To the uninitiated, you'd never know (it had been logged), but to the trained eye or to a marbled murrelet (a threatened seabird that nests in old growth), it doesn't look anything like it used to," said Randy Anderson, senior planner at the Midpeninsula Regional Open Space District. "But it's still beautiful and still habitat to a lot of animals, and it's worth protecting."

The open space district has two preserves--El Corte de Madera and Purisima Creek Redwoods--that were logged up until and even after the district acquired them. The district had to honor a contract for a year of logging at the newly purchased El Corte de Madera preserve in 1988 and 1989.

"It was a mess when we first got it. Now it's in the throes of recovering," said David Sanguinetti, superintendent of the district's Skyline area.

Old-growth redwoods originally covered two million acres in the range between Santa Cruz County and southern Oregon along the coast. About 90,000 acres of old growth remain, and 10,000 of those acres--mostly in the Headwaters complex in Northern California--are vulnerable to logging, said Drekmeier of Bay Area Action.

Fifty people went up to the Headwaters from Palo Alto for a national anti-logging protest in mid-September, he said. Closer to home, "I see these mountains as much needed recreation, open space, wilderness area," Drekmeier said. "In one of the most populated areas in the country, I don't think there should be much logging, but because of concerned people, a lot of the logging that takes place here is more sustainable."

Big Creek, based in Davenport just north of Santa Cruz, owns about 8,000 acres of timber land in Santa Clara, Santa Cruz and San Mateo counties. But 80 percent of its logs for milling come from private owners who contract with timber operators to log their land. There are about a dozen local operators with required licenses from the state, said Geoffrey Holmes, a forest practice inspector for California Department of Forestry (CDF). His office is based in Felton near Santa Cruz.

The landowners have holdings anywhere from three acres to 9,000 acres, Holmes said. "It's small private landowners that dominate timber harvest here," he said.

The timber harvest in the Santa Cruz mountains is substantial. About 30 million board feet--enough to build 3,000 homes--have been cut every year in San Mateo, Santa Cruz and Santa Clara counties during the past two decades, according to Jani.

While that's far less than the billions of board feet milled during last century, today's harvest is still substantial, Jani said. Typically, loggers cut some 3,500 or 4,500 acres each year in the three-county area, Holmes said. Harvesting, for example, took place on 2,772 acres in 1992, 5,742 in 1993, 4,615 in 1994 and on 1,837 acres in 1995.

The amount varies depending partly on the economics in a given year and partly on a company's management plan--the rules specify that a parcel can't be reharvested within 10 years.

Before commercially harvesting a stand, a registered professional forester must file a timber harvest plan with the CDF. For the three counties, the Felton office has received between 21 and 61 timber harvest plans a year in the last 15 years, with 54 to date this year, 50 submitted in 1995, and 59 in 1994. Some plans have to be resubmitted with more information. Others are withdrawn when it becomes clear they will not be approved.

"If the plans meet the rules and regulations, they get approved," Holmes said. "I review on the environmental basis . . . Most of the plans do get approved."

While logging in the rest of the state has slowed down--and enticed mills elsewhere to buy timber production lands in the Santa Cruz mountains--harvesting here is generally increasing, according to several loggers and environmentalists.

The rise is partly due to the high price redwood lumber fetches: some $500 for 1,000 board feet. (One board foot is equal to a section of lumber that is one inch thick, one foot wide and one foot long.) Typical second-growth trees are worth $375, while remnant old growth trees are often $1,400, Jani said.

Prices peaked in 1993 at $600 per 1,000 board feet, and have remained high. The high prices have meant "more property owners are interested in logging," Jani said.

Another reason for the increase is the redwood forests here are unusual in that more wood is growing than is being harvested, according to the Sempervirens Fund's summer newsletter. Both factors mean "we're in head-on-head competition with industrial companies," to buy redwood land, said Verl Clausen, executive director of the Sempervirens Fund. "That's really become more intense during the '90s."

On 160 acres in the Mitchell Creek drainage near Tunitas Creek Road, Big Creek finished a selective logging job three weeks ago for the Kings Grove Association, a group of 70 people who own 1,500 acres and a few vacation cabins. Selective logging looks very different than the images of vast wastelands created by clearcutting. The rules here allow loggers to cut up to 60 percent of the trees bigger than 18 inches in diameter at chest height, and up to 50 percent of trees between 12 and 18 inches, with at least 10 years between harvests.

"Typically, throughout the area, most of the consulting foresters and owners cut less than that," Jani said.

In Kings Grove, for example, the association doesn't need maximum profit, and wants to keep some of the older trees, so Big Creek only harvested 30 to 40 percent of the larger trees. The result is something that looks like a regular second-growth forest, with a canopy of century-old trees overhead and dozens of trunks in view.

Big Creek often cuts the tallest tree in the circle around an old-growth stump, giving the other trees more light to grow faster. When the company returns in 10 to 15 years, those trees are ready for harvesting.

"We take out one canopy tree and open it up for five or six other trees." Jani said.

The special Forest Practice Rules that help ensure sustainable forestry apply to the three counties, plus San Francisco and Marin counties.

Jani said timber operators actually asked for the rules that prohibit clearcutting, because many operators already used selective logging.

"We enjoy the best protected forestry rules that there are," noted Bott of the Sierra Club. "People who live in other areas envy us. They look to us and say, 'Why are you complaining?' However, (the rules) need to be updated."

Bott said some people think the rules need to better address the conflicts between commercial timber harvesting and residential populations, and give more protection to creek banks and steep slopes.

On logging issues, the Sierra Club favors the following practices: sustained yield (removing only as much biomass as can grow back); managing for a diversity of ages and canopy heights; leaving a buffer for creek areas and the habitat of endangered species; avoiding logging on steep slopes with erosion problems; creating as few roads as possible; using gentle technique for accessing and removing trees; and putting mulch or slash over the ground to protect against erosion.

"We have to make sure we protect a quality ecosystem," Bott said. "A forest is not just a bunch of trees. A forest is soil, animals, oxygen. It keeps our water clean. It provides habitat."

Probably the biggest environmental concern with logging is erosion. If soil gets loose, it can clog streams, harming and killing fish, and leading to flooding, landslides, and difficulty in growing new trees.

That's why several environmental groups, including the Sierra Club's Loma Prieta Chapter, Bay Area Action and the Santa Cruz chapter of Earth First! battled Big Creek over a logging plan for 1,544 acres in the Butano Creek watershed in San Mateo County.

A lawsuit was filed in 1991 by the Loma Prieta Chapter and the Northern California Council of the Federation of Fly Fishers after CDF approved the plan. It claimed that the plan to cut remnant old growth trees would harm the habitat of steelhead, waterfowl and the threatened marbled murrelet, degrade and silt up the watershed, including Pescadero Marsh, and threaten water quality.

They lost the lawsuit. Big Creek settled an Earth First! lawsuit out of court, agreeing to leave 10 percent of the trees over four feet in diameter near creeks, Jani said. Big Creek also made an agreement with the Department of Fish and Game not to log 365 acres of land that has never been logged as a buffer for marblet murrelet habitat in adjacent Butano State Park.

The Butano harvesting is still going on, "and it's going fairly well," said Holmes of CDF. "They have done some stream projects that have improved the streams."

The other biggest conflict is over logging close to or in people's back yards. "We're a rural/urban interface. People are starting to move into resource areas," Bott said. And that brings a host of land-use conflicts.

Some neighbors contract to have trees removed to create a view, reduce fire danger, or the hazard of the tree falling over in a wind storm. Also lots smaller than five acres with a home on it are being logged commercially, because of the high price of lumber.

Some neighbors dislike losing their forested surroundings, the fire danger of leftover limbs and trees, the noise of logging and the damage heavy logging trucks cause on private roads.

"Timber operations are pretty noisy and messy while they're happening," Bott said.

"Our largest issues here always surround this back-yard logging issue," Jani said.

To fix the problem, San Mateo County created a 1,000 foot buffer in 1992 between homes and logging on lands zoned for mixed use. Big Creek challenged the buffer in court, but lost last year.

"Because of the 1,000 foot buffer, we really have a lot less impact from timber harvesting in our backyard," Bott said.

But Jani said the buffer deters landowners with 40 to 160 acres from logging their lands at all, and gives them incentive to subdivide the land, instead.

The buffer did discourage a landowner adjacent to Koko the gorilla's Skylonda retreat from logging his land, much to the relief of Koko's caretakers, who feared the logging noise would stress the gorilla who uses sign language and prevent her and her mate from conceiving.

But the buffer didn't offer any help to the residents of Loma Mar, a community of 50 families on Pescadero Road, because they live next to a timber production zone.

The homeowners have been fighting and negotiating for two years to keep a 40-acre logging proposal from harming their water source, Pescadero Creek. They also disliked the danger of using helicopters, flying within 100 feet of homes, to remove logs, said homeowner Cindy Peters.

CDF approved the plan, then Redwood Empire of Cloverdale bought the land and changed the approved plan twice. In the second change, "they took into account the community concerns," Peters said.

Peters said Redwood Empire agreed, among other things, to not use helicopters and to not log three acres across the creek from the community's water intake. CDF approved that plan last month and Redwood Empire will begin logging next year, when the wet season is over.

"From a homeowners perspective, there's sort of been a happy ending to the story," Peters said. "From an environmental perspective, I'm not happy that they have to log. (But) this is an old logging town. It's not an anti-logging community." 

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