Cut Down Clearcutting in California's Sierra Nevada

Like a giant red beetle, the machine grabs the pine tree with its claw, severs it from the ground in one, quick motion, shears off its branches, drops it to the ground and reaches out to devour the next tree. At a pace of under a tree a minute, one man and one machine rapidly ravage 20 acres of pristine Sierra Nevada forest, leaving a barren wasteland in their path. Timber companies have consumed over 200,000 acres of Sierra forest in this manner in the past 10 years, and the number keeps growing.

“People think that deforestation is only a serious problem in far-off places like the rainforests of South America,” says Addie Jacobson, a retiree from Arnold, California. “But it’s going on, on a massive scale, under the radar, right here in California.”

Centered between Yosemite, Lake Tahoe and San Francisco, Arnold is a picturesque town in Calaveras County in the Sierra Nevada forests. Scattered houses punctuate the forest and bears, mountain lions and coyotes roam through backyards. Logging has been practiced in Arnold for centuries without protest, but in the summer of 2000, residents noticed an unusual abundance of logging trucks rumbling down Highway 4. Lumber giant Sierra Pacific Industries (SPI) had begun clearcutting nearly 1,000 acres of forest next to downtown Arnold—part of their plan to clearcut over one million acres of Sierra forest, an area larger than the state of Rhode Island.

As opposed to selective timber harvesting, where only the trees used for lumber production are removed, in a clearcut, all of the vegetation is removed—with major repercussions. Native wildlife is endangered, water quality is degraded and extensive soil erosion increases the likelihood of severe forest fires. And studies show that clearcutting releases more greenhouse gases into the atmosphere than any other forestry disturbance, including fire.

During the summer of 2000, as SPI clearcut the surrounding forest, Arnold residents filled community meetings to protest. Four teenage residents were arrested for chaining themselves together at SPI’s gates to block logging trucks. A group of local women called the Independence Hall Quilters made a quilt with 49 patches representing the land parcels slated for cutting. A black silk ribbon was sewn in an “x” across the patches as each parcel was lost to clearcutting.

That same summer, residents formed Ebbetts Pass Forest Watch (EPFW) to fight increased clearcutting. Jacobson is an active board member who’s developed a reputation among state legislators for her tenacity. “It just drew me in and I felt like it was something that needed to be stopped,” she says.

Witness to Ruin

Ron Szymanksi and Ron Schaner—Arnold area residents and volunteers for EPFW—drive a Jeep out to the clearcuts. Szymanksi, a former electrical engineer and an active member of the Boy Scouts, retired to the region in 2001. “I”m not against logging, only irresponsible logging,” he says. Schaner, a professional musician with salt-and-pepper hair, came to Arnold on a camping trip in 1974, fell in love with the woods and decided to stay. Szymanksi turns the Jeep onto a dusty dirt road that runs through state forest onto SPI’s land.

SPI owns a massive 1.7 million acres of California’s forests—making them the largest private landowners in California and the second-largest private landowners in the U.S. (after media mogul Ted Turner). The company is owned by billionaire timber baron Red Emmerson and is a family-run, non-publicly-held corporation. Most of their land holdings are in the Sierras, where they own three-fourths of all industrial timberland. In Calaveras County they own 74,000 acres of forest—approximately half of the county’s forested land.

Ponderosa pines dominate this landscape—tall, elegant, almost impossibly straight. “Life is all around you here and it’s all interrelated,” Schaner says, stepping from the Jeep onto a carpeting of pine needles. “But we’ve really distanced ourselves from it.”

Further down the road is a stand of trees that Szymanksi calls a “beauty strip”—a narrow band of trees left to conceal the damage behind. Beyond the strip, the earth is completely torn up—littered with tree stumps and scarred with tractor tracks. The unprotected soil is parched. A mountainous “slash pile” over 20 feet high is filled with trees, wood debris and animal carcasses of no value to SPI, ready for burning.

After a forest is clearcut, logging companies typically use bulldozing and repeated, intensive herbicide applications to wipe out whatever manages to survive. Then they fertilize the area and replant it with rows of evenly spaced, same-age, same-species pine trees.

Among the herbicides employed on California clearcuts are hexazinone, simazine, atrazine, glyphosate, and 2,4-D—all of which pose hazards to water sources. Hexazinone, simazine and atrazine are banned in Europe due to the threats they pose to human health—including an increased risk of cancer and infectious disease. Glyphosate has been shown to be lethal to frog tadpoles and can cause abnormal behavior in fish. 2,4-D and atrazine have been linked to deformities, reproductive problems and mortalities in birds, mammals, amphibians, reptiles and fish. The danger of water contamination is of particular concern in the Sierras—the source of 60% of California’s water supply.

Once trees and other ground cover have been stripped out, their roots no longer hold soil in place. As a result, clearcut sites are vulnerable to rapid erosion after rainstorms. This causes heavy loads of silt and debris to end up in reservoirs, further degrading water quality.

According to Harvard biologist E.O. Wilson, a single-species pine plantation contains 90 to 95% fewer species than the forest that preceded it. Clearcuts make it impossible for some species to migrate, find shelter or locate food. Half of California’s plants and animals make their home in the Sierras—including more than 400 species of terrestrial vertebrates and over 320 species of aquatic invertebrates. As tree plantations replace natural forests, much of this diversity is being damaged or destroyed.

SPI’s latest pine plantation looks more like a Christmas tree farm than a forest. The three-foot trees are an unnaturally bright hue of green—likely from the fertilizers, Schaner says. SPI’s plan is to convert 70% of their 1.7 million acres of diverse Sierra Nevada forest into monoculture tree farms like these.

“As far as SPI is concerned, if what they were doing was wrong it would be illegal,” says Szymanski.

Clearcutting has been practiced in California since the 1950s. But since 1994, it’s increased by 225%—in the Sierras (where SPI owns the majority of the landholdings) clearcutting has increased by 2,500%.

Perhaps the most catastrophic impact of clearcutting is its contribution to global warming. Deforestation is one of the largest sources of greenhouse gas emissions in the world, second only to the burning of fossil fuels. Scientists estimate that deforestation is responsible for 25 to 30% of carbon emissions worldwide. Not only is carbon released during a clearcut, but also through subsequent soil erosion, the burning of logging debris and the sped-up decay of that debris due to the lack of canopy cover. Carbon is released into the atmosphere for years after the initial logging. A study in the journal Science found that clearcutting in the Pacific Northwest has resulted in a net increase of over 1.5 billion tons of carbon to the atmosphere.

“Given what we know about climate change, what we are allowing to happen to the forests is totally irresponsible,” Schaner says.

Szymanksi says he has to limit his trips to the clearcuts. “Every time I go out here I get worked up,” he says. “It rekindles the sense of futility in me because things aren’t changing.”

Patchwork Below

Dr. Rodger Orman, a physician and EPFW volunteer, offers plane rides over the clearcuts in his four-passenger Conna 182. “Driving around, if you don’t hike a lot, you might not notice the extent of the damage that has occurred,” he says. “From the air it’s unavoidable.”

On a clear day, visibility spans over 1,000 miles—from Mt. Diablo to the high Sierras. From this vantage point, Calaveras County looks exceptionally beautiful—green, forested hills interspersed by houses and golden fields. Over the SPI land, a checkerboard pattern of barren and forested land emerges. California state law mandates that a clearcut cannot exceed 40 acres in size and cannot occur on an adjacent parcel of land until a specific amount of regrowth has occurred. SPI defends their practices by pointing to the relatively small size of the sites that they are permitted to clearcut. “In other states they can cut up to 240 acres,” says SPI spokesperson Mark Pawlicki. “There is no state in the union that has more protective environmental standards than California.”

In the nearby town of Avery, Warren Alford lives on about 300 acres of forested land that has been in his family since his grandfather bought it in the 1930s. His property is bordered on two sides by SPI tree plantations. Alford’s family practices selection harvesting, which, if properly managed, can preserve forest ecosystems and produce timber forever. “When the logging is done it’s still a forest—not a tree farm,” he says. Today, Alford and landowners like him have to do costly treatments to defend their property from the hazards created by clearcutting on adjacent lands. In an attempt to mitigate risks like fire, insect infestations and disease, Alford thins out his property’s understory and plans to conduct controlled burns.

While fires are a natural part of forest ecology, tree plantations are far more susceptible to intense, destructive wildfires. The even height and spacing of the trees facilitates crown fires—powerful fires that jump from tree to tree with dangerous speed. And whereas an average of 40% of vegetation will survive natural forest fires, plantation fires usually result in 100% tree mortality.

Outbreaks of insects and disease are also far more likely in tree plantations. Plantations are much simpler ecosystems than old-growth forests, which have evolved over thousands of years to be resistant to pathogens. In the southeastern U.S., pine plantations have led to catastrophic outbreaks of the southern pine beetle.

According to SPI, their intent is to harvest their tree plantations in 50- to 80-year rotations. However, given the long-term disadvantages of clearcutting, Alford doesn’t think they really intend to harvest the plantations. “I think SPI will rezone the land and resell it for its most profitable use, which will likely be development,” he says. “They have a real manifest destiny type of mentality. Whack it, stack it and get out.”

SPI currently gives hundreds of thousands of dollars in corporate donations to state, local and federal politicians every election cycle and is one of the top contributors to California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger. They have a seat on the nine-member board of the governor-appointed California Board of Forestry, a board that’s stacked with pro-industry people. “It’s one of those classic “fox guarding the henhouse” kinds of situations,” says Jacobson.

And taxpayer dollars are helping to fund clearcutting. In the past decade alone, SPI has received tens of millions of dollars in federal and state subsidies for logging interests. In its defense, the company alleges that clearcutting helps fight global warming due to the high carbon uptake rate of young, rapidly growing plantation trees—ignoring the fact that the amount of carbon sequestered by plantations is vastly outweighed by the amount of carbon lost when forests are clearcut. They also claim to be restoring wildlife habitat by replacing poor-growing trees with vigorous seedlings—disregarding the diverse habitat requirements of most wildlife.

A Sierra forest is worth much more than the cost of its timber. According to the “Sierra Nevada Wealth Index,” a report by the Sierra Business Council, “What defines the Sierra Nevada, more than any fact or figure, is the dramatic beauty and ecological uniqueness of our landscape.

These natural wonders are our treasures; they are to California what the Pyramids are to Egypt, the Louvre to Paris, and the Golden Temple to Kyoto.” No one, in other words, can calculate the real long-term costs of clearcutting a forest.