Timber Down, Subdivisions Up

by Daniel Mintz, March 17, 2010

The economic value of timberlands has fallen, there is a decrease in industrial ownership and tim­berland subdivisions have increased, county planning staff has told the Planning Commission.

Information on the county’s Timber Production Zone (TPZ) lands — and the revenues they produce — was delivered to the Commission at its March 11 meeting. The Commission is entering the forestland policy phase of its General Plan Update review and a highly-debated question is whether or not to place new restrictions on subdivision and development of TPZ parcels.

Commissioners had asked for quantification of tim­ber trends and County Planner Martha Spencer delivered it. She outlined the county’s reduction in timber production, saying that in 2008, the last year calculated, economic value of timberlands totaled $108 million — which is 25 percent less than the pre­vious year’s $147 million.

And 2007 also represented a decrease, she contin­ued. Spencer said that the dip in the housing market has had an effect. With the timber market trending down, industrial companies like Pacific Lumber and Eel River Sawmills have gone out of business, break­ing up some of their timberlands.

Spencer said that in the last eight years, there’s been an eight percent decrease in the county’s amount of industrial ownership, a loss of 51,000 acres.

Some losses occurred when timberland went from private to public ownership. Since 1998, 88 parcels or 11,157 acres that were privately-owned went into pub­lic ownership, said Spencer.

Subdivisions on resource lands — those zoned TPZ or for agriculture — have increased. From 1985 to 2000, 25 percent of the county’s lot line adjust­ments and certificates of compliance (which recognize separate ownerships and parcels) and were on resource lands. From 2000 to 2008, a “steep increase” was seen, Spencer said, with the percentage jumping to over 67 percent, representing 53,000 acres.

“What we’re seeing is what we call parcelization — lands that were in big tracts, they get broken up through the certificate of compliance process,” said Spencer.

And, quoting from a 2009 study from the North Coast Regional Land Trust, Spencer told commis­sioners that “size does matter” with timberland. From 1997 to 2008, industrial companies accounted for 51 percent of the county’s timberland mass but their holdings yielded 69 percent of the acres included in timber harvest plans, Spencer said.

A related survey done in the Mattole Valley found that of those owning more than 160 acres of TPZ land, 79 percent said they want to harvest timber. Only 44 percent of those owning less than 160 acres said they intend to log.

“One of the things they found from this is that those with small holdings don’t see timber harvesting as a priority,” Spencer said, adding that the costs of complying with regulation have a significant impact.

Timber yield taxes drop when smaller holdings are created from larger ones, Spencer continued. The Land Trust considered 35,000 acres that went to smaller ownerships in the last ten years and calculated a timber yield tax loss of $150,000 to $200,000 a year.

An increase in development of timberland is feared as the viability of logging is threatened. But so far, building on timberlands has been modest. Spencer said that from 1998 to 2008, a total of 63 building permits were issued for TPZ lands and 28 of the per­mits were for storage units.

County Assessor Linda Hill also gave a presenta­tion and she said that both TPZ property tax and timber yield tax revenues are declining. In 1989, the county collected about $1.4 million in timber yield taxes and in 2009 the amount was $964,273.

Commissioners also heard from the county’s For­estry Review Committee (FRC), which has recom­mended that the county rescind an ordinance that requires owners of contiguous timberland parcels to merge them. Various members of the FRC said parcel size doesn’t necessarily indicate the viability of timber harvesting.

The FRC’s appearance before commissioners is con­troversial, as groups like HELP and the Humboldt Association of Realtors have endorsed its recommen­dations. Commissioner Dennis Mayo referred to that, asking FRC Chairman Mark Andre to “address the issue that you simply are rubber-stamping develop­ment.”

“Our committee takes its role seriously and I think all of its members know how to check their personal issues or conflicts at the door and do their job — they all are professionals,” Andre said.

The hearing on the Update’s forestry chapter was continued to March 18.

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