The Coastal Post - June, 1997

Savage Or Salvage Logging

By Edward Miller

Planet earth, revolving slowly as it circles the sun, is young. Its magma core breaks the surface to form volcanos and fluid still allows some shift in its tectonic plates, we record as earthquakes. Much of the land mass, about a third of the earth's surface, is either desert waste or too mountainous to permit significant vegetation, so man builds on the relatively few accessible surfaces. How he administers these crucial areas defines his lifestyle and will determine his survival.

Earth's crust available to vegetation is relatively thin, broken here and there by core rock projecting through the surface. Soil, that surface rock already pulverized by sea and river, the tug of freeze and thaw, the split of vegetation's roots, is precious. Biologists estimate it takes a million years to produce one inch. Eventually, mixed with these rock particles comes nature's recycling garbage: the dead and decaying bodies of plants, insects and animals, billions of bugs, worms, yeasts and molds and microscopic organisms which in their living and dying will produce that environment supportive of the larger plants and trees.

The forest floor is a living, breathing factory of life and death. The outreaching roots of a great tree seek from that chemical stew we call soil, not only moisture but all those elements it needs, while its solar panels, or leaves, exchanging both carbon dioxide and oxygen, assemble the molecular pieces. Years later, when this aged giant has completed its cycle and falls, crashing to earth, those very organisms and creatures which sustained it in life will gradually disassemble its biomass, returning to the soil those molecules which the next generation of seedlings, already sprouting, eagerly await.

Primitive man learned early on he could not take season after season the grains, fruits and other crops from land he tilled unless he gave back some of the building blocks from which his harvest was constructed. From trial and error he learned to rotate crops, to plow under certain plantings and add the droppings of animals and birds as he worked the soil. The Indian Massasoit, Chief of the Wampanoag Tribe, in the 1600s taught the first settlers on his shores to bury a dead fish in each hillock as they planted corn to insure a generous crop.

How we today interact with this chemistry of life and death will determine our survival on this planet. Wherever we have ignored the intricate pattern nature has evolved over the millenniums, we have paid the price. Take the forests: China with its press of population years ago destroyed much of her timberlands and losing the confining root structure her topsoil washed into the sea. The Yellow River is yellow with the topsoil of that continent. The devastating floods of Bangdalesh arise not so much from the Bay of Bengal typhoons, but deforestation of the Himalayan ranges to the north, which send their topsoil down the Ganges River, producing that now-overpopulated delta where thousands drown each year.

Here in the West we see the same process. Winter rains wash topsoil from clear-cut slopes, filling the streams, destroying the habitat of animal, bird and salmon. That brown stain moving south along our Pacific coast makes a mockery of the lumber companies' "sustainable yield." This last winter more than 30 roads to our north were closed by mudslides whose clearing was charged to the counties and the taxpayer.

The Federal Government owns 29 percent of the nation's forests. In California 44 percent of timberlands are privately owned, 40 percent are public timberland and 16 percent State and Federal parks and preserves. Some timber is harvested in northern California on Federal land. The U.S. Forest Service (USFS) subsidizes timber harvest from these public lands, but collects less in sales revenues than it spends on timber costs. These costs include constructing access roads, reforestation, marking trees, advertising sales, payments to states, etc. In 1995 alone, the USFS spent $234 million more than it collected from logging. Taxpayers paid the difference. The costs of access roads have become astronomical. By 1990 the USFS had built 360,000 miles of roadways nationwide into the wilderness. Erosion from this construction alone is a serious problem.

Perri Knize, ex-forester and writer, in the Atlantic Monthly (Oct. 1991) argued that since federal forests held only 15 percent of the nation's wood and a more than adequate supply of better timber was available on the 72 percent of private land, we should stop logging our national forests, particularly since the USFS not only loses money, produces timber of lower quality, but is destroying our few remaining wildlife preserves. Knize added that not only does the USFS lose money, but because of the Knutson-Vandenberg Act of 1930, gets to keep most of its timber receipts, which encourages their spendthrift performance and unnecessary logging.

California logging companies' "sustainable yield" calls for relogging conifers (redwood, Douglas fir and ponderosa) at 40-year intervals, despite careful studies which show that waiting another 40 years would more than triple the board-feet obtainable from that acreage. (See 1994 Forests Forever Initiative.) Industry, however, must have its cash flow!

In an in-depth study, Jeff Pelline reported in the SF Chronicle (July 1992) that between 1980 and 1990, timber cut on private land averaged 860.1 million board feet per year, but dropped to 420 million board feet by 1988 clearly demonstrating industry was overharvesting. Second-growth cutting is much less labor-intensive as Professor Bill McKillop (Berkeley) pointed out, so conversion to young-growth harvesting costs jobs. Pelline also noted that from 1980-90 some three billion board feet of timber a year went overseas for manufacture. This practice destroyed U.S. jobs at the rate of 3.5 jobs per million board feet exported.

The latest catastrophe to hit our forests came with Bill Clinton's second term when he surrendered to Big Lumber despite his 1992 campaign vow to protect our forests. Clinton had first vetoed the 104th Congress budget bill with the so-called "timber salvage" rider. Weeks later, however, caving in to special interests, he signed a revised version which suspended all environmental laws for two years instead of the three in the original bill. The Bill passed defines "salvage logging" as removing "dead, dying, diseased, or associated trees" or whatever timber the companies want.

Forest biologist Herbert Kronzucker, Ph.D, points out that dead and dying trees sustain the coming generations, are not a hazard, and are essential to the health of the forest. Alaskan fire management official John LeClair has noted again and again that dead trees left standing, rather than increasing the hazard of fires, burned more slowly, retarding the conflagration in contrast to the "explosive inferno" when a live tree full of inflammable resins caught fire.

Doctor Kronzucker offered an even more cogent argument against "salvage logging" in our conifer forests. This involves the chemistry of nitrogen which growing timber requires throughout its life. With logging, Kronzucher says, the dominant form of soil nitrogen shifts from ammonium to nitrates which the rains then quickly leach from the soil, thus slowing or often preventing the next growth of conifers from taking hold. Dead or dying trees, however, in their slow decomposition, transfer their precious chemicals to the new growth. Efforts to replant forests in large areas of North America after clear-cutting have not succeeded. In British Columbia, nearly four million acres of once-productive forests have been written off as failed plantings. (Christian Science Monitor 1/14/97).

It's best we leave nature to her own devices. The "salvage logging" planned by our Marin Municipal Water District described in the Marin Independent Journal in February may even set back the ecology of our watershed, and deprive the oncoming generation of trees of their needed soil support. The non-native pines being cut are resistant to the plague killing our native Monterey species. District vegetation ecologist Dennis Odion was quoted as saying: "The problem with Bishop, Jeffrey, Coulter and knobcone pines is they creep along, their fast-growing sprouts invading grasslands." However, isn't it the deep-rooted conifers which are protecting our watershed? Their thicker forest floor releases its moisture slowly come summer heat. Grasslands, by contrast, already brown by May, hold neither water nor soil as well and don't belong there.

Hiking this week along MMWD's Bon Tempe Reservoir, I was surprised to find no effort has been made over the past ten years or more to reforest its already browned-out banks. Silting into its waters is obvious. Incidentally, who cares whether our watershed trees are native or not? Shouldn't California vegetation enjoy the same diversity as its people?