'Regulatory Streamlining' Bill (SB 455) Would Lead to More Clearcutting of California Forests
By Paul Hughes
“Tries to do too much!”
Anyone who voted in California in 1990 might remember that cynical tag line, which its industry opponents hung on Prop. 128. The ballot measure, a.k.a. Big Green, a.k.a. The Environmental Super-initiative would have restricted harmful pesticides in food, curbed air pollution emissions, safeguarded coastal and marine resources, saved ancient redwoods, and more.
Sadly, the slogan worked well enough to help bring down a well-drafted and initially popular initiative by confusing voters into thinking that cleaning up an array of urgent environmental problems in one stroke was somehow a bad thing.
Fast forward 22 years and we find a current-day measure that truly fits the “Tries to do too much!” tag line. But unlike Big Green, Senate Bill (SB) 455 purports to take us in an assortment of environmentally worthy directions at once with regard to forest policy, while providing little to no real clarity, guidance or funding to get us there.
It would set forest protection in the Golden State back decades.
For starters SB 455 would nearly triple the maximum timeframe in which state-approved logging operations could take place, from a typical five years (seven tops) to 20 years.
At the same time, the measure would allow logging plans, which typically range from 300 to 1200 acres, to explode to a whopping 100,000 acres—and in some cases even more.
Its passage could lock in, for a generation per logging plan, practices that foul streams and rivers with sediment and herbicides, inhibit snowpack retention, and destroy forest habitat across whole watersheds.
As if all this weren’t bad enough, the bill is tricked out in a bright green wrapper—billed as a comprehensive reform of logging regulation aimed at stepping up carbon sequestration in forests while at the same time streamlining forestry regulations for an overburdened industry.
At best it’s green in the sense of naïve and untested: More likely it’s a potential accelerator of the already breakneck pace of deforestation in California.
We’d be remiss not to mention that SB 455 is authored by, of all people, Fran Pavley (D-Agoura Hills), who also carried the landmark Global Warming Solutions Act of 2006 (AB 32) to enactment and has chalked up one of the best environmental track records in Sacramento history. Such a strong environmental leader is she that Forests Forever, the California League of Conservation Voters, and other green groups have endorsed her re-election bid this year.
How then to explain the bizarre forestry bill that tries to do too much? We think SB 455 must be simply a well-intentioned, if fatally flawed, mis-step.
California’s natural environment is unique mainly on account of its rare Mediterranean climate coupled with its geographic isolation—due to having its back against the ocean while being walled off from the rest of the continent by mountain ranges on the other three sides. More endemic species—plants and animals occurring naturally only in California—are found here than in any state except Hawaii.
And it’s the forests here, as elsewhere around the world, which are the premier storehouses of that biodiversity. The state depends on its forests for over half its drinking water (from forested watersheds and snowpack) and for being a major driver of its most-muscular economic sector, tourism.
These are just a few of the reasons why Californians have pushed steadily over the years for stronger forest protections. But because California is far and away the most populous state—and the eighth largest economy in the world if it were a country—the pressure on our forests continues to be relentless and growing.
A Google Earth flyover of Sierra Nevada lands lying outside of parks, preserves and rock-and-ice peaks should convince any skeptic. Fresh clearcuts of up to 40 acres—an acre is about the size of one football field—riddle the landscape so it resembles a mange-ridden hide. The picture is the same in the Lassen Peak / Shasta / and Modoc regions. And—for the discerning observer that can still see where a clearcut has occurred in an area that receives more rainfall and thus greens up faster—throughout the vast North and Central coasts.
Over the decade ending in 2006, 350,000 acres of forest were approved for clearcutting in California. And timber giant Sierra Pacific Industries (SPI) plans to clearcut as much as 900,000 acres of its holdings over the next century. The result would be conversion of sweeping expanses of more-or-less natural forest to fire-prone tree plantations that provide zip habitat value.
Against this backdrop—and contrasting with California’s reputation as an environmental bellwether—SB 455 would take us a giant leap in the wrong direction. Its most prominent feature is the bill’s creation of a new regulatory beast, the Watershed Timber Harvest Plan (WTHP). As mentioned, its exponential increase in scale, in both time and space, is its most obvious feature.
By making authorized plans so much bigger in area they would by orders of magnitude overstretch environmental agencies tasked with oversight and inspection at a time when they have already been budget-cut to absurd levels.
The state Dept. of Fish and Game in fall 2010 lost two-thirds of its timber harvest inspection budget thanks to a single stroke of Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger’s blue pencil. As a result, today there are zero inspectors in the entire Sierra Nevada and Cascade ranges to spot check harvest operations and make sure the industry is playing by the rules.
Citizens and conservation groups currently pressed to review and comment on thick Timber Harvest Plans (THPs) in just 15 (sometimes as much as 30) days would have a 100-fold greater challenge under SB 455—with no additional review time provided and no appeals apparently allowed on already-approved WTHPs.
The current system has its shortcomings. California’s fishery for salmon (a forest-dependent animal) has been in steep and steady decline for decades. At the same time over 80 percent of the state’s waterbodies are listed under the Clean Water Act as “impaired”—with sediment and temperature the chief pollutants in the regions where Big Timber does its thing. So it’s hard to believe that what California timber lobbyists constantly complain of as being the most extensive and complicated forestry regulations in the country are even accomplishing what they were intended to at the get go.
Even so, few observers, environmental activists included, would argue that the logging done today isn’t better than was happening 70 years ago, when the industry was self-regulated and laying waste to entire valleys as a matter of standard practice.
The current system provides for a modicum of public review and comment on the plans, for appeal opportunities, and for at least some review by environmental agencies.
But SB 455 would essentially magnify all the flaws of the current forestry statutes while adding a bevy of vague, poorly drafted, and unenforceable, though green-sounding, provisions.
It calls for timberland conversions—the permanent transformation of forested land into shopping malls, freeways, vineyards and the like—to be “fully mitigated” but doesn’t define what this means.
The measure demands an “increase” in carbon stocks for logging projects but sets forth no performance standards or other specifications for assessing the adequacy of such steps.
It requires that the new WTHPs include a “statement that rare, threatened or endangered plant or animal species…will be protected or managed appropriately” but astonishingly leaves this completely to the discretion of the plan submitter.
What the bill doesn’t do is just as alarming. Its fish and wildlife assessment requirements, unlike the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA, which the forestry regs are supposed to emulate) does not require that all significant impacts on wildlife be reduced “to a level of insignificance,” and accepts only “feasible [mitigation] measures planned” by the plan submitter at that.
The bill does nothing to curb clearcutting—the most destructive and wasteful silvicultural practice of all—except within one mile of a federal or state highway, a requirement that for PR reasons alone the industry might be expected to support.
Without a reduction in acres clearcut the carbon-sequestration goals of the bill surely cannot be met. Clearcutting not only removes carbon-absorbing vegetation but also increases the heating and drying of area soils. Organic matter stored in the soil then oxidizes faster, in turn releasing more greenhouse gases. Soils often contain more carbon than the trees themselves.
It gets worse. The timber inventory data that shapes the essence of what would go into the new logging plans is subject to confidential audits, not public review.
The biggest timberland owners—and most prolific clearcutters—including SPI and Green Diamond Resource Co. would be able to submit a WTHP for their entire ownership if they have a state-approved Habitat Conservation Plan or Natural Communities Conservation Plan…documents many of them already have.
And once approved, a WTHP “shall constitute the environmental analysis for all appropriate and required timber harvest-related permits from [relevant regulatory] agencies…and the terms of each of those permits shall be 20 years notwithstanding any other provision of law”. The intent clearly appears to be to override CEQA and all other germane environmental laws, including those addressing water quality, alteration of streambeds, and listed species. An approved WTHP is designed to trump all these other environmental laws.
Arbitrarily capped at $100,000 per WTHP, the fees charged for the 20-year plans fail to ensure that agency costs would be covered for reviewing, implementing, and monitoring the humongous plans.
The North Coast’s Richard Gienger, a respected forest restorationist and veteran of decades of California’s timber wars, summed it up best:
“SB 455… takes energy away from the major, and often quite simple, reforms that need to happen on private and state forestlands in California. Instead of making sure that information is usefully organized and easily accessible to actually respond to legacy cumulative effects on all California forestlands, it empowers the large companies to make their own environmental documents in a process that is largely out of reach of the public and public trust agencies. Each huge (WTHP) would last for a human generation. Instead of improving existing long-term planning processes like the flawed Sustained Yield Plan process, a whole new wheel is invented that facilitates a plantation-styled forestry that dooms vast acreages to homogeneous tree farms—with no forests being older than 45 to 55 years old...This is all being pushed forward under the guise of improving ‘carbon sequestration’ on California's timberlands—with the actual benefits being highly speculative, abysmally small or actually negative…Despite ostensible good intentions of SB 455 supporters, the contents of the bill are a half-thought-out mistake, which may easily be construed as pandering of the worst sort. The people, forestland, and legislators of California deserve a better effort.”
SB 455 passed the Senate by a single vote on Jan. 30 now awaits action in the Assembly. You can help defeat SB 455 by contacting Assembly Speaker John Perez and your assemblymember here.
Paul Hughes is the Executive Director of Forests Forever, a non-profit advocacy organization that fights to protect and enhance the forests and wildlife habitat of California through educational, legislative and electoral activities. Forests Forever has played a key role in most of California’s controversial forest campaigns since its founding in 1989.