I came across this petition from The Center for Biological Diversity http://action.biologicaldiversity.org/o/2167/p/dia/action3/common/public/?action_KEY=15803 calling for signatures to protest the U.S. Forest Service’s decision to proceed with a massive timber buy in the Tongass National Forest. The Tongass, home to the Alexander Archipelago wolf, a rare gray wolf subspecies heading for endangered status, has been the center of controversy for years. The Sierra Club, Greenpeace and others have fought for years to keep the saws out of this old growth rainforest in southwest Alaska.
The petition got me thinking about the forests here in Northern California, where I live. While tracing OR-7’s path on Google Earth, I couldn’t help but notice something:
Northern California is a patchwork of clearcuts. That image above is a Google Earth image of the part of NorCal I grew up in.
It’s even worse up by Lassen Volcanic National Park, where clearcuts extend right up to the boundary of the national forest. This is the California that awaits wolves. Most of these clearcuts are on private land, owned by Sierra Pacific Industries, an Anderson, CA based company and the largest private land owner in the state. California has some of the strongest laws protecting wildlands from this kind of abuse, but SPI has found a loophole. Take a close look at the following Google Earth image:
Each clearcut is no larger than 20 acres (30 on flatter slopes), and in each clearcut is a tiny stand of a few trees. The laws pertaining to clearcutting allow this, and allow that if replanted trees reach a height of five feet in five years, the entire area can be completely clearcut.
After clearcutting, Sierra Pacific then bulldozes all deadfall and remaining plant life into a huge burn pile to “prep” the land for re-planting. By law, all clearcuts have to be replanted, but SPI is only interested in “usable” trees, not creating a healthy forest for wildlife. Thus, they douse the re-planting areas in herbicides, including hexazinone, which can persist in the soil for years, to prevent any “undesirable” species, such as oaks, manzanita, shrubs and grass don’t compete with their trees for water and nutrients. I’ve driven through these “tree-farms.” Along the forest road leading to the Hay Meadows Trailhead in the Caribou Wilderness, rows and rows of yellow pines, all the same height, all trimmed up from the ground, with nothing but shed needles on the ground. There is no cover for wildlife, no grass to sustain deer.
The Foothill Conservancy posted an excellent article about the damage Sierra Pacific causes. You can find it here: http://www.foothillconservancy.org/pages/focus4.cgi?magicatid=&magi_detail=171&magid=11
The national forests aren’t much better. With a strong Sierra Club presence in California, the U.S. Forest Service often finds itself under suit if they propose to cut a single tree. This isn’t the answer to the problem of timber harvesting. In the national forests, we see the opposite of the Sierra Pacific lands. The national forests are a jungle, so dense they bring to mind Mirkwood, and nearly as unsuitable for wildlife as clear cut land. Dense, tall trees create a canopy that prevents light from reaching the ground, preventing much growth of an understory. Deer don’t like dense forest. It limits their view of approaching predators and cuts off escape routes. Any hunter will tell you, deer are edge species. They like open woodlands and the edges between meadows and forests.
Historically, fire was the keeper of the forest. Fire, as we are again starting to understand, is essential for the health of forests. Here in NorCal, the Digger Pine is vanishing, with few new trees growing. The cones of the Digger Pine hold the seeds tight, only opening under high temperatures, like those in a forest fire. Fires are meant to burn the understory of the forest, leaving the largest trees unharmed. In today’s national forest jungle, raging wildfires that destroy everything in their path are the norm, but this wasn’t always so. The local Mechoopda Maidu are quick to point out that their ancestors tended the land, cultivating oaks and digger pines, and setting controlled burns each year to burn out the old understory and promote new growth, which attracts deer.
The massive Chips Fire, which ignited in 2012 and burned an astonishing 75,000 acres, tore through the Lassen National Forest and Sierra Pacific land, scorching canyons and mountains from Highway 70 nearly to Lake Almanor. Burning up the Feather River canyon, it was in such rugged country that firefighters couldn’t battle it. They could only wait and hope to stop it before it reached the tiny town of Canyon Dam, at Lake Almanor. The fire raged while on national forest land, but as soon as it hit land owned by a small timber company called Collins Pine, they were able to control it.
Not all lumber companies are the devil. While I despise SPI, having seen firsthand the damage they’ve done to the mountains of NorCal, some sort of forest management is necessary to create healthy forests. Based in Chester, CA, Collins Pine has sustainably logged a relatively small acreage around Lake Almanor for more than 100 years. And their forests are beautiful. Old growth trees stand tall over an understory that supports a wide range of wildlife. No ladder fuels allow a fire to reach the crowns of the trees. But this level of sustainability takes effort, and companies like SPI and Roseburg won’t move in that direction until forced to by law.
Clearcutting in any form should be illegal. If we want to pass down to our children a California that can sustain healthy populations of gray wolves, mountain lions, and ecosystems that can support them, we must rein in companies like SPI and establish environmental laws that are based on sound science and that actually have teeth. Listing gray wolves under the California Endangered Species Act is a step in the right direction, but unless we protect their habitat, wolves won’t find many homes in the state.