Private Rights, Public Wrongs

Should States Regulate Logging on Private Property?

The sun hits the snow-capped peaks of Mount Culebra, sending snowmelt down to the Culebra River and into the elaborate system of hand-dug irrigation ditches of farmers and ranchers around San Luis, in southern Colorado. Snow usually lasts on the 14,000-foot peak through August. Residents watch for the last snow pack to disappear. When it does, they know that soon their ditches will be dry.

The pristine beauty of the Taylor Ranch in Colorado has been marred (left) by logging. Photo: Ancient Forest Rescue

The pristine beauty of the Taylor Ranch in Colorado has been marred (left) by logging.

The pristine beauty of the Taylor Ranch in Colorado has been marred (left) by logging. Colorado has no state law regulating the taking of trees in private forests.
Photos: Ancient Forest Rescue

Colorado has no state law regulating the taking of trees in private forests. Photo: Ancient Forest Rescue

Colorado has no state law regulating the taking of trees in private forests.

The Hispanic community of San Luis has survived on this system for over a century. In a county where nearly half of the land is farmland, it is one of the only communities in Colorado that still irrigates crops this way. But the livelihood of the community is being put at risk by commercial logging operations on the mountain.

San Luis farmers and ranchers have noticed that as more and more logging trucks come down the mountain, the snowmelt is no longer lasting until the end of the growing season. And the runoff is transporting sediment down to the valley, where it is being deposited in the irrigation ditches. “People are really angry about the logging,” says sixth-generation resident Maria Mondragon-Valdez. She says watching the trees disappear on the 121-square-mile Taylor Ranch is “like having to watch a rape in progress and not being able to do anything to stop it.”

The residents-and local, state and federal agencies-are powerless to stop the logging because the land is private. Colorado has no laws pertaining to logging on private land, and Costilla County has no land-use regulations of any kind.

Current landowner Zach Taylor has already logged between 20 and 30 million board feet and has timber contracts running for another 10 years. Taylor told The Christian Science Monitor in March that another 70 million board feet will be logged under contract. The total harvest on Taylor Ranch could build 10,000 homes.

The state and Taylor have been negotiating the purchase of the land, but even if that happens it won’t stop the logging, because the existing timber contracts have to be honored. “We don’t want to buy ourselves into a lawsuit with all the companies that have contracts to timber,” says Kathy Kanda, a spokesperson for the state Department of Natural Resources.

Around the country, a dozen states have laws regulating logging on private land, including California, Connecticut, Idaho, Maine, Maryland, Montana, Oregon, Washington, Wisconsin, Virginia and West Virginia. All but Virginia and West Virginia regulate private timber with state Forest Practices Acts that require written plans of operation and on-site inspection before logging begins.

In 1971, Oregon (which has 28 million acres of forests, 11 million of them private) was the first to adopt its Forest Practices Act. The logging industry, a major sponsor, wanted to ensure that reforestation efforts were properly carried out. The act now addresses threatened and endangered species, wetlands areas, road building, water quality, erosion and fish and wildlife habitat. “Those in the industry view the act as an insurance policy,” says Charlie Stone, an Oregon State Forest Service officer. “If they follow it, they’ll be able to continue their livelihood.”

Members of the 25-year-old grassroots group Save Our Cumberland Mountains are pushing for a Forest Practices Act in Tennessee, but they have met with opposition from the timber industry and the state Forest Service. Member Barbara Levi, a biology teacher in Chattanooga, says the private forests in the state are being clearcut and over-harvested, causing siltation, flooding and loss of biodiversity. “We’re not tree huggers,” Levi says. “We know we have to cut down trees, but let’s be sensible about it.” Assistant State Forester Jere Jeter responds that a Tennessee Forest Practices Act “would just add a lot of bureaucracy.”

Back in Colorado, Phil Schwolert, the Colorado Forest Service’s landowner assistance programs coordinator, says his state’s timber industry is too small for a Forest Practices Act. There are 26 million acres of forest land in Colorado, six million of them privately owned, but Schwolert says Colorado’s mountains make a lot of areas inaccessible. He favors an incentive-based approach in which landowners are rewarded for following regulations. With too-strict legislation, Schwolert says, “Landowners just decide they aren’t going to do anything, which leads to forest overcrowding.” Colorado’s Front Range has more trees than ever before, he adds, making the area more prone to fire.

Colorado’s Ancient Forest Rescue, which works to preserve roadless areas, sees the state’s unprecedented tree growth as a cause for celebration, and it downplays the danger of fire. “Regulations could certainly help,” says volunteer Kirstin Atkins.

Regulations have never interfered with the Taylor Ranch, which was founded when North Carolina timberman Jack Taylor bought the property in 1960, cleared the title, and fenced it off. San Luis’ farmers lost the access rights they’d gained as part of a turn-of-the-century Mexican land grant.

Ancient Forest Rescue has surveyed Taylor Ranch from the air, and timber monitors Mike McGowan and Marie Jordan estimate that 30 percent of the trees have been cut. (In some areas, 80 to 90 percent of the forest cover has been removed, and the small residual trees left over are subject to wind damage. McGowan says that the steep drop on the mountain-6,000 feet in six miles-makes for a steep drainage, which causes sediment to be deposited at the valley’s farms and ranches.

Residents also complain about the constant truck traffic, which raises clouds of dust, prevents sleep, and caused the cracking of one woman’s adobe house foundation. Munir Meghjee, an Earth Justice staff attorney, says the organization is investigating a legal claim of property damage. “Our position is that private property owners have a right to do what they want on their land,” she says, “but not when it affects people downstream.”

Since 1995, the county has also been studying the possible formation of a watershed protection district. Negotiations are moving slowly. “In a county with no land-use regulations, we’re really starting from scratch,” says Bob Green of the Costilla County Conservancy District. “But people would vote for anything that would stop the destruction.”

This feeling of desperation was apparent when Ancient Forest Rescue presented a slide show of its aerial photos to Spanish-speaking students at Centennial High School in San Luis. “It’s ugly,” said one student. “It’s sad,” said another. But a student who lives in the foothills of Taylor’s property added, “There’s nothing we can do to stop it, though.”