ON THE COVER North Coast Journal Weekly

A dying breed - Humboldt's small loggers are getting regulated out of business [photo of Gary Giannandrea]



SITTING IN HIS OFFICE, ABOVE HIS FEED WAREHOUSE in north Arcata, Gary Giannandrea [photo above] still dresses like the logger he once was. A sharp-eyed, ruddy-faced man, he's wearing the baseball cap, the ragged-cuffed jeans, the leather boots of a woodsman. But, he quips, it's only because he hasn't had the money to buy new clothes.

"I've employed up to 26 men, plus truck drivers at [the same] time," Giannandrea said. "I worked solely for private ranches. I have not logged a stick in two years."

And it's not just him. Many other small contract loggers, self-made men who saw an opportunity, scraped enough money to buy their first piece of equipment and worked hard getting their businesses off the ground, have been driven to other jobs.

Giannandrea runs his feed store, does some trucking, and picks up whatever other opportunities he can find on the side. Duane Willfong [in photo below], just down the road on Giuntoli Lane, started logging in the early `70s; these days he does mechanical work. Ken Bareilles of Eureka is now a full-time lawyer; he passed the bar in 1969, but until last year he'd been in the woods continuously since he bought his first "Cat" in 1975.

Duane Willfong on his loaderWhile the Pacific Lumber Co. and Sierra Pacific Industries draw the headlines and the controversy, small loggers have ended up as collateral damage in the region's never-ending timber wars. Some have moved into environmental restoration work, while others have gotten out of the forestry field entirely. Many have simply left the area.

The $10 to $30-per-hour jobs that small loggers like Giannandrea used to provide to local men, many fresh out of high school, and the young families those men supported, are disappearing from the North Coast.

"That's [a lot of] men who are no longer being fed by the local economy, who have moved out of town," Giannandrea said, referring to his work force in years past. "These are men with families, with multiple numbers of kids."

Why can't people like Giannandrea, Willfong and Bareilles do the work they used to do? The reasons are complicated, but nearly everyone interviewed for this article agreed that the ever-increasing amount of paperwork needed to complete timber harvest plans (THPs) in the state of California is largely responsible.

"Very little changes in the basic methods or rules of timber harvesting, but all this regulatory stuff has gotten to the point where it's absolutely ridiculous," said Willfong, sitting in his powder-blue-upholstered camper trailer office. "It's all baloney, totally baloney. I've got other words for it, but for the sake of this interview it's all baloney."

Are all the regulations adding up to greater protection for the environment? Not according to one prominent environmental activist.

"The difference is CDF is requiring all these regs and stuff and when you look at what's happening on the ground nothing changes," said Cynthia Elkins, program director for the Garberville-based Environmental Protection Information Center. "They're stacking the record to make it hard for citizens to take legal action. They're more concerned about that than they are about the environmental impacts on that land."

Steve Matzka of the Humboldt State University Forestry Department stated the obvious -- and summed up the problem for small loggers -- when he said: "The more limitations, the more regulations, the higher the costs."

The age of regulation

According to Matzka, back in the 1960s and very early `70s it was relatively simple: If a landowner wanted to log on his property, all he had to do was have a professional forester fill out a form, similar to the type still used today in Oregon and Washington state. The timber plan was then reviewed by CDF foresters. It's not like there weren't rules, but in many ways getting a THP was a rubber-stamp process like registering a car at the DMV: If your ducks were all in a row, off you went.

Then came the `70s and the passage of two laws that forever changed forestry in California: The Z'Berg Nejedly Forest Practice Act of 1973, which imposed a series of restrictions aimed at reducing erosion and other damage caused by logging; and the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA), which set up a procedure for reviewing the environmental impacts of logging.

A key change was that the forestry department no longer was the only state agency involved in reviewing private lands logging. Instead, any state agency that had an interest in protecting the environment -- notably the regional water boards and the Department of Fish and Game -- could now comment and suggest changes to THPs, beginning their transition to cumbersome legal documents. Add in the federal Endangered Species Act, also passed in the early `70s, and suddenly cutting down trees had become a complicated -- and expensive -- business.

In the past 10 years more and more analysis has been required, as new endangered plants and animals are protected. It is all adding up to new layers of paperwork.

"We do require more information, more thorough analysis, as things change in the academic community and elsewhere," said Dennis Hall, deputy chief at CDF resource management. "These projects are a lot more complicated than even 10 years ago."

Not that the restrictions are all bad, not even close. Loggers and environmentalists alike have an interest in a healthy, sustainable environment, "good stewardship," as Willfong put it.

"Every one of us has an emotional connection to the forest," said Bill Sise, a forester and 32-year veteran of the HSU Forestry Department.

Tracy Katelman of the Willits-based Institute for Sustainable Forestry, a group that works to promotes good forestry practices, said, "The regulations are in place for a reason; the problem is the paperwork."

Donald P. Gasser of the University of California at Berkeley, an expert on the California Forest Practices Act, said in a recent study that while the law has "measurably improved" soil and water quality over the past 20 years, it has also proven "a burden wherever applied, particularly among non-industrial private forest landowners." The problem, he said, is a lack of flexibility; the law imposes the same strict rules statewide, despite the fact that California's forests are extremely diverse.

"Attempts to regulate California's huge forest lands through prescriptive rules are seen as constraining to management and productivity as well as expensive at all levels of implementation," Gasser wrote in his study, based on information provided by 23 land managers, loggers and regulators in the private sector.

Gasser said that the minimum preparation cost for a THP is $8,000 to $12,000, with some costing well over $20,000 -- five to 10 times what it was a decade ago.

The greater expense has sent private forest landowners in one of two directions, according to Gasser: Some are cutting their lands faster and more thoroughly so as to offset the cost of regulation and to reduce the need to harvest in future years; others aren't cutting at all and instead are selling their lands, either to developers who build subdivisions or to farming interests who clear the land to make way for other crops, such as grapes in places like Mendocino and Sonoma counties.

A politicized process

Of course, the economics of forestry is not the only thing that's changed. The whole process is also more political than it used to be.

The fact that several agencies now review THPs has created rivalries that can get in the way of sound decisions. "Turf battles between regulators place more emphasis on political power than on environmental quality," Gasser said. While it doesn't involve small loggers, such a battle is currently going on in the Van Duzen watershed, where the North Coast Regional Water Quality Control Board and the forestry department are at odds over the pace of logging on Pacific Lumber lands.

Additionally, legal challenges from environmentalists have injected politics into forestry. The timber wars of the late `80s and early `90s in particular led to a flurry of environmental challenges to timber sales on the North Coast; the impacts are still being felt today, not least in the THPs themselves, which have became more complex in part so that they are more easily defensible in court. What was once a simple two-page form has turned into a document sometimes inches thick.

Take the example of Janice and Gordon Tosten, partners in the 5,000-acre "Stewart Family Ranch" near Alderpoint. The Tostens have been working more than a year on getting a Nonindustrial Timber Management Plan for their land. It has cost them over $100,000 dollars.

To get an NTMP a myriad of surveys has to be completed by a veritable gaggle of experts: a timber cruise to see how much is there, a geological survey, an archeological survey, a flora and fauna survey, a survey of any creeks and draws. The people doing these surveys are typically paid between $50 and $100 an hour.

After the survey work is done things get really expensive. The various agencies responsible for signing off come out and suggest whatever mitigation they think is necessary: culverts for streams, improved roads, more stable log decks -- and that's all before any actual logging plan has been developed.

Using the Tostens' ranch as a rough example: They are allowed to harvest 800,000 board feet of timber each year (a board foot is a 1 foot by 1 foot piece of lumber 1 inch thick). At $500 per thousand board feet (anything less and "you're pretty much giving it away," Janice Tosten said), it's worth $350,000 at the mill after "dockage," the portion of the tree that can't be milled. The Tostens will see about 15 percent of that. First there's the timber plan itself and the annual upkeep it mandates: $120,000. Then there's the logging and trucking costs: about $154,000. Add in other costs, like $5,000 for insurance, $5,000 for taxes, and $6,000 for yearly owl hoot and biological studies, and the Tostens are left with a relatively modest profit of $60,000; that's not only for them -- they work on the ranch year-round -- it's also for the two other families who work it with them.

Such economic realities do not encourage light-on-the-land logging.

"If you want to do good forestry out there you're not going to make any money," said Katelman of the sustainable forestry group. "If you clearcut you'll make money, and if you clearcut and subdivide, you're hitting the jackpot. That's not what we want to see."

The bread-and-butter timberland owners, people with 40, 80, 160 acres of land, many of whom have been growing the trees for years as a sort of retirement fund, have even less of a profit margin. A small plan can run anywhere from less than $5,000 to $50,000, depending on what happens after it goes into agency review.

All of this leaves small loggers who used to contract out with private

landowners competing for a shrinking pool of employers.

Chart showing Harvest volume versus price, with harvest volume dipping below price in the last few years

Bad market

Of course, regulations aren't the only problem.

People wouldn't be as worried if the timber market was like it was in 2000.

"Money can conquer all odds," as Willfong put it.

The average price for timber coming out of Humboldt County back then was $733 per thousand board feet. Last year that price had fallen to $349. As the season starts this year it's hovering just below $500.

Partially that's because log prices have been driven down by imports from less regulated areas such as Oregon, Washington and in particular British Columbia, which still has large swaths of old-growth. Because an economic downturn in Asia has reduced demand, those prime logs have been shipped down the coast to Humboldt County mills. They have a variety of advantages.

Most importantly, they are already processed with the useless parts of the logs (or dockage) already removed, so the mill produces more lumber for its time.

Also, the supply is fairly steady and can keep mills going through the winter.

"[If you use imported logs] you don't have to be involved with the logging down here, with all that unpredictability," said Bareilles.

There are other problems with logging in California. The cutting season has been shortened over the years by a month or more, in part to avoid logging during the nesting season of imperiled birds such as the northern spotted owl and the marbled murrelet. And workers' compensation costs in the state have skyrocketed.

As if all that weren't bad enough, almost no timber has been available for logging in the state and national forests in the last year, mainly due to environmental challenges and restrictions imposed by the Northwest Forest Plan, which governs logging on public lands in Washington, Oregon and northwestern California.

Possible solutions

So what's being done? For the past several years a group of foresters, landowners and even some environmentalists have been working on something called the Buckeye Forest Project. (See "The Trail to Cooperation," Nov. 15, 2001.) They've taken a piece of land and run it through the regulatory maze to illustrate just how exasperating the process has become. The goal is to highlight the system's flaws and eventually formulate some concrete recommendations on how to improve it.

"[We're going to tell the state] here's what's really happening," said Jim Able, the forester who's been directing the project. "How can we give the Legislature some specifics on how to turn this thing around so we still get the same environmental protections, [but do it] like other states do it? Their forests look the same as our forests and they're not strangling their economy."

Other groups such as the Alliance for Sustainable Jobs and the Environment, of which Katelman is the co-chair, have been trying to bring together timber workers and environmentalists to find common ground -- and, they hope, figure out a way to make the system work for everyone.

"If you're taking care of your forests you're taking care of your workers," Katelman said.

Finally, some loggers have gone into the environmental restoration field, where they are essentially trying to undo the harm that results when a forest is cut.

Redwood National Park, which contains large portions of cutover land, has long employed loggers in such work, which typically involves shoring up or removing logging roads, revegetating and using bulldozers to restore the land to its original contours.

Steve Hackett got out of the logging business in 1995 after his family was forced to sell their 3,000-acre ranch west of Scotia. After three years of stalled harvests because of studies mandated after the spotted owl was listed as an endangered species, they'd been driven out of business.

"You can imagine what a three-year delay will do for a small business with a $60,000-a-year interest payment," Hackett said.

Now he does forestry and restoration contract work, helping logging companies restore areas that have been harvested. He said he misses managing his family's land. On the other hand, he's happy to be out of the logging business.

"If you were to do a business plan in `95 about what the prospects were, there were none," Hackett said. "It's even tougher now than it was then."

Tough transitions

Meanwhile, independent loggers are disappearing with fewer and fewer young people taking their places.

When Willfong first went into the logging business, he could just knock on people's doors and ask if they wanted some logging done on their land. Regulatory overhead was hardly a worry. Doing business that way today is simply not possible, said Willfong, who has yet to find any logging work this year.

Giannandrea said some small loggers are so desperate for work that they are bidding less for jobs than it will cost to do them.

"I don't feel that I can be competitive because people are so hungry they're outbidding jobs just to work," he said, adding that his primary professional focus is his feed store.

But for those who depended on the logging jobs that men like Giannandrea provided, there is no fallback plan, and sometimes transitions out of the industry can be hard.

"One of [my ex-employees] works in the farm country now driving tractor, plowing ground," Giannandrea said. "And he complains to me that if it wasn't for stealing food out of the fields he'd have a tough time making it. You know? That's what's going on."

Sise, the long-time forestry professor, summed it up like this: "It's kind of what happens to these people. They just don't make transitions well. Their fathers, their grandfathers, their brothers, their uncles have been doing it forever. They get the dirt and the chips in their blood. And it's hard to get out of it."

Editor Keith Easthouse contributed to this report.





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