Timber Harvest Plans (THPs) are like demure invitations to dance. A timber company sidles up to Cal Fire, which extends its soft hand. The music is an ancient minuet, its steps designed almost fifty years ago. The cadences repeat themselves, harmoniously, as the Agencies partner up and take their places, stately, in the still, ethereal atmosphere. Then, after a few fleurets and some courtesies exchanged, the logs start rolling out of the forest.
The minuet, made famous by Louis XIV of France, used to have meaning: it was metaphor for the serene, hierarchical architecture of society, where every character played a discrete part in time and place. In the modern world, however, timber harvest plans are an oxymoronic metaphor for chaos. Outside the ballroom, chunks of Antarctica the size of New York are falling into the sea. The Gulf Stream vacillates uncertainly. Scientists grasp at fantastically expensive and risky schemes to sprinkle the stratosphere with sunlight-reflecting particles. And, as Earth warms, a quarter of its people face dying of thirst while others are swept away by floods or freezes.
The skies are emptying, one third fewer birds now than when the California Forest Practice Rules were written almost 50 years ago. According to the World Wildlife Fund, taken together, mammals, birds, fish, reptiles and amphibians have declined 70%. The insect apocalypse is hurtling along 8 times faster.
The agent of this chaos is the still-increasing concentration of carbon-dioxide in earth’s atmosphere, caused by human activity. We have returned the carbon, sequestered by ancient vegetation, in oil and coal, to the atmosphere. As for the contemporary, still-actively sequestering vegetation, we destroyed 80% of it before 1990.
Amidst the wreckage the minuet, choreographed by the revered California Forest Practice Rules, proceeds with inviolate composure. Biomass of all sorts is conveyed to the mills: the US is by far the largest wood exporter in the world. Slash and small trees are made into wood pellets, the rest for lumber. “Old growth” is now extremely rare. Trees such as doug firs and redwoods, which can live thousands of years, are now harvested at 40 to 70 years old, leaving no generation to replace their falling elders.
Any concern about global warming is finessed with phrases such as “there is a natural variability in earth’s climate” and “considerable debate regarding its causes”. Fear of catastrophic fire, founded on rising temperature and wind velocity, and loss of moisture in logged-over areas, is met with the entrenched dogma that fuel load reduction is critical for fire protection. Calfire asserts this despite comprehensive studies that “timber harvest, through its effects on forest structure and local microclimate, has increased fire severity more than any other human activity”(US Fish & Wildlife Service:1996).
In fact it makes no sense to combine commercial timber harvesting and forest management into the same agency. Logging companies are interested in fire prevention from the perspective of protecting their assets. As they have said many times, biodiversity and forest health are not their responsibilities (viz. Robert Fisher, owner of HRC: “we are a business, not a charity”))except insofar as legal compliance is concerned. Forest management is a public trust, and therefore must concern itself with public safety and its corollary, ecological stability. The axiom of commercial interests, to extract the most profit at the least cost, is antithetical to this trust. Cutting down big trees, which are fire resistant and have been demonstrated to reduce forest temperatures up to 4.5 degrees compared with plantations, increases fire risk.
The fact that Calfire plans to log its own Jackson State Forest flies in the face of its public trust mission: fire safety, protection from the effects of climate catastrophe, and the defense of biodiversity.
The preservation of the last stands of planetary forest are our last best hope for curbing carbon emissions in the shortest amount of time. If all logging were stopped today, and the forest allowed to grow, our remaining trees could remove 1/7 of the world’s carbon-dioxide exhalations annually. Redwoods and, to a slightly lesser extent firs, sequester carbon at a rate 2.5 times the rate of tropical rainforests. And the older the tree, the more efficiently it can sequester carbon. Although they may grow more slowly, they produce more photosynthesizing leaves/needles. But as forests are logged, this sequestering engine is lost, and forests will no longer be sufficient to mitigate climate change.
The UN Council on Biodiversity reported last year that 1 million species are at risk of extinction, “which paints an ominous picture with serious consequences for humans as well as the rest of life on Earth”.
Here in the pacific northwest there are many indigenous species whose populations have been, and continue to be, decimated by human activity. The problem can be compared to the human housing market: as we know unhoused human lives are shortened by 25 years due to the of hardship of living rough. The housing, or habitat, market for wildlife, is already tight. Then, four months ago the US Fish & Wildlife Service redefined critical habitat, which by law must be allocated to a threatened or endangered species at the same time it is listed. By stipulating that habitat must be intact, ready and able to support an endangered species, without the need of any restoration or alteration, it excluded the candidacy of millions of acres, and invited the destruction of millions more.
In January, US Fish & Wildlife Service opened up 3.4 million acres of northern spotted owl habitat to logging.
In order to keep a roof over their heads, that is, to save their habitat from logging, animals must stay home 24/7 and make sure to be noticed, as the Forest Practice Rules have no respect for untenanted housing. Instead of keeping and recruiting habitat for northern spotted owl, Green Diamond Timber now shoots their competition, the larger and less specialized Barred Owl, and is rewarded by USFWS with being allowed to harvest the habitat the owls have vacated. The resultant take of NSOs “is more than offset by the value of information gained from this experiment and its potential contribution to a long-term Barred Owl strategy”(FWS).
This expresses a deranged form of goal obsession, worse than the archetypal “Bridge Over the River Kwai”.
Although the public submitted questions, the California Department of Fish and Wildlife declined to participate in the preharvest review team meetings of either of the last two THPs I examined. But they are paid by the public, by us, to be guardians of our wildlife! a public trust.
They report that they are understaffed and underfunded. This represents a sharp decline from the days of Pacific Lumber/MAXXAM, when their biologists, such as Armand Gonzales, fought valiantly for wildlife.
But the Agencies are snowed by the status of “certifiably sustainable” timber harvesting practices achieved by our three dominant timber companies, who, significantly, pay for their own certification, and are rewarded with a premium for their products. The Agencies appear to believe that this dissolves their own public obligations.
However, the certification process has been comprehensively tested, by the public, a group of whom complained to the certifying organization on several grounds: cooperation with local communities and tribes, use of herbicides, and protection of ecologically valuable forest. Needless to say , the timber company in question, HRC, did not change their ways. In fact, just a week ago, after offering property-wide access to the Bear River Tribe for habitat typing, lead bullet collection and toxin identification for an EPA study being conducted by the tribe, preparatory to the release of the Pacific Condor in Humboldt County, the company slammed the door in their faces.
Certification is just another masquerade: sheep’s clothing.
Meanwhile the owners of the timber companies are as unreachable as the gods on Olympus. Regarding their power over our lives, climate and forests, these billionaire gods seem to have some kind of ataxia, like multiple sclerosis, and their multifarious empires have, unlike the Olympians, the common denominator of profit.
It is suicide. We must end this fatal minuet, and retire the senile forest practice rules. Measured carbon sequestration achieved by our forests, that is,
letting them grow, in a practice called “pro-forestation”, should be defined as a “high quality timber product” and recognized as achieving the goals of 14 CCR933.11, “maximum sustained productivity”. Timberlands are called “working forests”: well then, let them work, sustaining life on earth, instead of providing pellets for Swiss stoves.
And, let the industry instead invest in and market a different building material, one that doesn’t impose the death penalty on the planet.