Logging Pollution Damages North Coast Watersheds

HUMBOLDT COUNTY, California, January 29, 2003 (ENS) - Accelerated logging has polluted some 85 percent of the waters in California's North Coast region, uprooted protected redwoods and damaged private property, but state officials continue to permit logging companies to avoid complying with environmental regulations.

California environmentalists are fighting back with lawsuits, and activists continue to take to the trees in a desperate attempt to save ancient redwoods and their surrounding ecosystems.

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Treesitter Raven inhabits a redwood tree in Humboldt County. (Photo courtesy SF Indymedia)
They blame inadequate state oversight and the intensive logging practices of Pacific Lumber Company for the region's poor water quality, as well as for recent landslides and flooding within the region's watersheds.

"People in Humboldt County are really suffering from the effects of this logging," said Cynthia Elkins, a spokeswoman for the Environmental Protection Information Center (EPIC). "The water quality problems are very profound and severe."

A new independent study found that excessive logging by the company within five Humboldt County watersheds has caused severe water quality problems and flooding downstream. The independent scientific study was issued by a panel of scientists chosen by community members, the North Coast Regional Water Quality Board and Pacific Lumber Company.

The panel unanimously concluded that the company's rate of logging must be dramatically reduced due to water quality concerns, and the water board is investigating whether Pacific Lumber Company has logged in some areas without the appropriate permits.

"Pacific Lumber is going through these watersheds, clearcutting, burning and then spraying herbicides on vast areas of land in a very short timeframe," Elkins said. "We have a very unique geology in this area where it is even more unstable than most areas, and it is naturally susceptible to erosion. When you couple that with the intensive style of management that Pacific Lumber is carrying out through the terms of the Headwaters Deal, it really spells disaster."

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Landslide in Humboldt County (Photo courtesy California Geological Survey)
Pacific Lumber Company says it has done nothing wrong and believes that some environmentalists "will never be satisfied," according to company spokeswoman Mary Bullwinkle.

Heavy December rains caused some of the erosion and mudslides, she said, and the panel's report did not include relevant information about the company's environmental protections.

"We disagree with the complaint that water quality is not in good shape in those watersheds," she told ENS. "We believe the study is incomplete and is too narrowly focused."

The company's environmental protections go well beyond what is required by California law, she added, and some of the efforts undocumented by the report include a planned $1 million to be spent on road improvements, set aside areas, forested buffers along streams and wet weather restrictions.

But it is clear that the state is not holding the company to the requirements of California's Clean Water Act. The logging industry in the North Coast region of California has operated under a waiver since 1987 that eliminates the requirement that they comply with the law.

This waiver was up for review over the past three years, but the North Coast Regional Water Quality Board adopted a categorical waiver on December 10, 2002, just prior to the deadline. The new waiver relies on the implementation of the California Forest Practice Rules by the California Department of Forestry for logging operations to protect water quality on nonfederal land.

But these rules, said Earthjustice attorney Mike Lozeau, don't work, and the water quality and watershed problems simply confirm this.

"It is painfully demonstrated in the North Coast that the rules that we are relying on are not sufficient to protect water quality," Lozeau said, adding that the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, the U.S. National Marine Fisheries Service and the Regional Water Board have each criticized the effectiveness of this rule.

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Treesitter Remedy waves at a visitor from her perch atop a Humboldt County redwood. (Photo courtesy SF Indymedia)
Earthjustice, on behalf of EPIC and the Humboldt Watershed Council, filed a petition in mid-January in California Superior Court to reverse the renewal of the waiver. The board, according to Earthjustice, did not analyze the potential adverse environmental impact of the waiver, something that is required by state law.

Earthjustice has also filed an administrative appeal with the State Water Resources Control Board challenging this decision to grant the waiver.

"The waiver is basically paying for overseeing discharges by very large logging companies like Pacific Lumber and that is bad public policy," he said. "It is not what the public expects."

With some 96 percent of the original redwood ecosystem gone, many activists are willing to go to extreme measures to try and force protection of what is remaining. A dozen or more tree sitters from the environmental group EarthFirst! are currently protesting within Pacific Lumber's Demonstration Forest as well as on the company's lands near in Grizzley Creek, within the Mattole watershed and on Gypsy Mountain.

The mountain was named after activist David "Gypsy" Chain, who in 1998 was killed by an angry logger who felled a tree that crushed Chain, who was in the forest with a group of anti-logging protesters.

Bullwinkle confirmed that the company had removed one of the 12 tree sitters on January 16. "This is a very difficult issue," she said. "We would wish they would not take the law into their own hands. These are illegal activities and very dangerous as well. We approach it on a case by case basis."

The controversy over the management of the North Coast forests has deep roots. In 1985, Maxxam, a Texas based corporation, succeeded in a $900 million hostile takeover of Pacific Lumber, a company with local ties stretching back to the 1850s.

Maxsam kept the Pacific Lumber name, but tripled the rate of its logging operations. A chorus of protests soon followed, as activists took to the streets and to the trees, appealing to the public and the logging industry to protect many of the world's last redwood forests.

The result of these protests came 10 years later, with the Headwaters Forest deal between the federal government and Pacific Lumber. At the heart of the deal was the exchange of $480 million in public money for some 7,500 acres of ancient redwoods, which is called the Headwaters Forest.

Although it included a 50 year ban on logging within some additional 7,000 acres, it allowed Pacific Lumber to bypass many logging restrictions on much of its land, including protections for endangered species and limits on the rate of logging. The company owns some 210,000 acres in Humboldt County.

It is nearly four years later and many local activists are clearly not happy with the consequences. Conservationists worry that Pacific Lumber has rapidly increased its logging, with negative impacts to the watersheds and to endangered species such as the marbled murrelet and the coho salmon.

Although the company must submit plans to the California Department of Forestry to commence logging operations, many activists fear the company has effectively neutralized any political opposition to its efforts.

"It is extremely political," Elkins said. "Every time it seems like we are getting movement nothing happens. It is very frustrating."