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Life Preserver 

Will a new environmental initiative help keep small timberland owners afloat?

On a clear day in Petrolia, long-time environmental activist Richard Gienger and Seth Zuckerman, forestry director for the Mattole Restoration Council, sit outside of the council's office at a weathered picnic table explaining what Zuckerman calls the "vision of stewardship" his organization has for the entire Mattole River watershed.

Presently, that vision is focused on small timberland owners and the economic pressures they face, which, according to the council and many of the landowners themselves, make sustainable "light touch" logging practices impossible.

For the past 10 years, Gienger says, the costs associated with logging for small landowners have been increasing, and that's made it necessary for them to cut down more timber rather than less in order to cover expenses.

Zuckerman and Gienger explain how the watershed has changed since 1947, when a post-war housing boom, the proliferation of Caterpillar tractors and an ad valorem property tax, which caused landowners to favor clearcutting, combined into a perfect storm. Almost a third of the entire 300-square-mile watershed was logged by 1962. And by 1988, 91 percent of the area's old growth forests were gone.

But within the next 10 years, according to Zuckerman, many trees will be mature enough to be harvested. "We're in this window right now," he says. And that's why "a mechanism to log with a light touch needs to be put in place."

To that end, the council is floating a Program Timberland Environmental Impact Report (PTEIR), as its new watershed-wide plan is known. The council argues that the PTEIR will streamline the application process for sustainable Timber Harvest Plans (THPs) by providing umbrella environmental review. Under the plan, the council will bear the brunt of the costs and the time spent filing tedious paperwork, deflecting those expenses from small landowners.

In turn, landowners must agree to log selectively rather than clearcut, and to other restrictions. For example, an area that has been logged with a PTHP (a THP filed under the PTEIR) can't be logged with a regular THP for at least 10 years. Zuckerman likens it to getting a piece of land certified organic. Also, stricter rules for operating heavy equipment and logging near streams than exist in regular THPs would apply.

Still, some aren't happy with the plan. In a recent Times-Standard opinion piece, Robert Sutherland said that the PTEIR "seeks to make it much easier for every small landowner to commercially log their land, potentially prompting widespread rape." He asked people to write to the California Department of Forestry to insist on a full evaluation of the "no project" alternative. Zuckerman argues that doing nothing is the real crime, robbing small landowners of a new paradigm provided for under the PTEIR, a choice beyond the business as usual model or clearcutting.

Scott Greacen, executive director of EPIC, hasn't reviewed the PTEIR thoroughly but he says the principle behind it is laudable. The one question that remains, he says, is whether or not it is "up to snuff as a real flag bearer for sustainable practices."

The council thinks it is. They've been at work on the project since last spring and are in the scoping process right now. Zuckerman says they're looking to have a draft EIR by late summer or early fall so that the first logging under the PTEIR can begin in summer of 2009 with four to seven pilot projects paid for completely by the council.

The council recently conducted a landowner survey and the results are promising, according to Zuckerman. Fifty-two percent of the landowners who have responded so far say they would consider logging under the PTEIR and of those, 81 percent of landowners with 160 acres or more expressed interest. All told, Zuckerman expects that the PTEIR, which will cost around $300,000 to implement, will benefit dozens to scores of small timberland owners.

The Buckeye Conservancy, an organization of family farm, ranch and forest landowners on the North Coast, came out with a report in the summer of 2003 that suggested solutions for the rising costs of small timberland owners. A case study contained within that report shed light on just how thin-margined the situation was for family logging operations. At the time, owners of a 160-acre parcel along the Van Duzen River wanted to continue logging lightly and selectively on their property, but circumstances were such that there was no economic incentive to do so. The family would need to spend $45,450 to prepare a THP to harvest 200,000 board feet of Douglas fir. At what was then current market value, the family would have lost $5,400 on the harvest. Two choices remained: They could either clearcut for a profit of $30,000 or subdivide their property for an even greater profit.

The situation hasn't changed, and Bob Stansberry is a case in point. A sturdy-framed, taciturn logger and rancher, Stansberry's family has been making a living off their 5,000-acre property for over a hundred years now, and he's worried about the future.

In order to prepare his most recent THP to cut 100,000 board feet, he paid about $20,000. Fifteen years ago, it would have cost somewhere between $500 and $1,000, according to the Buckeye report. With timber prices in a slump, Stansberry says, "It's hardly worth logging." The PTEIR doesn't solve all his problems, but it will help. "Every expense means more trees have to be cut," he says. "The PTEIR is one way to alleviate some of those expenses."

Another example of this is an annual fee of about $800 for a wastewater discharge permit Stansberry has to pay while logging. That fee will be covered under the proposed PTEIR. Landowners will still have to conduct some environmental studies, and there will be a review period for public comment equal to that for a THP, but in a best-case scenario Zuckerman expects the cost and the time of the application process for a PTHP to be cut in half.

Johanna Rodoni, executive director of the Buckeye Conservancy, thinks the PTEIR is a good idea, but she also understands that it has limitations. "It's not something that every watershed would be capable of putting into place," she says. "It's another tool in the toolbox for timber harvest." And, she adds, it's also not a guarantee that "you'll be able to check a box and go through the system."

The Buckeye Conservancy floated the idea when they were preparing their 2003 report, but according to Rodoni they were looking for a solution that could be applied throughout Humboldt County. Unfortunately, the legislative changes they were proposing, which would have extended the duration of THPs as well as expand the acreage limits for Nonindustrial Timber Management Plans, weren't successful. Rodoni describes the council's proposal as "a different approach to solving the same problem."

PTEIRs have been around since 1996, according to Zuckerman, and the council is not the first organization to put one into place. He cites the Hearst Corporation's PTEIR for their timber holdings and the Mendocino Redwood Company, which is in the process of developing a comprehensive PTEIR for its approximately 228,500 acres of Northern California redwood and Douglas fir forest. But the council's project would be the first watershed-wide PTEIR specifically designed to alleviate the problems facing small timberland owners.

Still, reducing administrative costs for small landowners is just the tip of the iceberg. For family logging operations like Stansberry's, it will still be an uphill battle no matter what. Once upon a time, it was possible to make a living as a rancher or a logger in the Mattole watershed, but over time costs have outpaced profits. The 62-year-old explains that he's worried about how an inheritance tax will affect his son when the land becomes his eventually. What will he have to do then, Stansberry wonders aloud — clearcut to pay for the taxes or break up the property into 600-acre trophy ranches for the super rich? Only time will tell.

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Japhet Weeks

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