by Jerry Partain

As widely reported, the California Department of Forestry found 103 violations of the forest practice rules on Pacific Lumber Co. land during 1995, '96 and '97. Because of these violations, PALCO has been issued a "conditional" timber operator's license for 1998 but only if the company lives up to the strict conditions of a "Stipulated Agreement" signed recently.

The new agreement calls for the company to supervise closely and inspect all logging and trucking operations and report to CDF after each inspection or at least twice a month. The company is hiring two more foresters to form a compliance team to see that all conditions of the agreement are met. The agreement is given enforcement teeth by carefully spelling out the conditions under which CDF can terminate the timber operator license.

The recent news stories and editorials have raised several questions about the actions of CDF regarding PALCO. Why did CDF wait so long to report the many violations? Were CDF inspectors more strict with PALCO than with other timber operators? How serious are the violations? How do these violations compare with those filed against other operators? Where do all these rules come from and what is this Forest Practice Act anyway?

The Forest Practice Act of 1973 called for the "goal of maximum sustained production of high-quality timber products ... while giving consideration to values relating to recreation, watershed, wildlife, range and forage, fisheries, regional economic vitality, employment and aesthetic enjoyment."

That was a tall order from the beginning and required a constantly increasing number of rules and regulations to address all the issues that have come up during the past 20 years. The 1997 rules book contains 240 pages and hundreds of rules and regulations to guide the timber operator and CDF. It's important to keep this complexity in mind when discussing enforcement or violation of the rules.

All law enforcement calls for judgment when enforcing the rules and laws. Not all speeders or jaywalkers are cited. Judgment is used to weigh the seriousness of the infraction against the cost of enforcing the law to the letter. The same is true in the case of CDF inspectors. If there are 900 active timber operations in the area and you have limited personnel, you focus on the most critical operations, those most likely to cause serious problems and ones that cannot be easily corrected.

This last year CDF was not allowed to fill two vacancies in southern Humboldt County and fell behind in its inspection program. Then Sacramento headquarters sent six teams from out of the area to southern Humboldt last October and November to catch up with the backlog of needed inspections.

The largest land owner down there is Pacific Lumber Co., therefore most of the inspections were made on PALCO land the last quarter of 1997. That made it appear that most of the violations occurred during that short period when actually they had been accumulating over a longer period.

Inspectors not familiar with normal operations in the area may record violations that might otherwise be solved immediately on the site by a local inspector and the responsible forester for the company.

Although numbers of violations do not tell the whole story, they can be viewed in comparison with other operators. For instance, another large timber company in the area had 200 timber harvest plans during the 1995-97 period and 10 violations, a ratio of 1 to 20. PALCO had 100 violations on 300 plans, a ratio of 1 to 3. Not all of this variance can be attributed to a focus on PALCO because of the Headwaters Forest controversy. But neither can we assess the severity of the violations from the numbers alone.

Both the recorded violations and the terms of the Stipulated Agreement focus to a large extent on those matters that affect erosion from roads and landings, erosion that carries silt into the streams. Some 72 of the violations concerned this issue in one way or another. The Stipulated Agreement allows CDF to make unannounced inspections. It prohibits the company from hauling, rocking or using heavy equipment on certain roads if the use would cause fine sediment to reach streams and turn them turbid. It greatly reduces the amount of time all roads can be used during wet conditions and spells out just what those wet conditions are.

This focus on logging and hauling during the winter months by CDF implies that PALCO uses its roads in winter much more than most other operators in this area. Loggers in the woods stress that it is important for them to continue to get the logs out to protect the jobs of all those who work for PALCO, the largest single employer in the county. But that raises the question of just how much can the company cut, for how long and still develop a reasonable sustained yield operation for the long run.

Without the necessary data we are not in a position to make a judgment on the proper rate of harvest, however it is evident that the company is preparing and operating on more timber plans than its foresters can supervise properly at this time.

I still believe this area is capable of producing the greatest amount of timber, of the best quality, in the shortest time of any area in the country. But, at the same time, the foresters capable of managing the harvest are not always allowed to so for a variety of reasons. Some of the rules limit the flexibility needed to address site specific problems. And, company policies are still dependent on the bottom line. Although this is as it should be, often the long-term goals get overrun by short-term ones.

The consolation we have is that the land will still be here after all the current controversy settles down. It will still be productive. It will still be forested and beautiful and if the demand for wood products continues to expand along with our population, we will find a way to accommodate those who want to grow and cut and those who want to grow and leave.

That result will not come easy nor soon, but it will come.

Jerry Partain is a retired professor of forestry from Humboldt State University and former director of the California Department of Forestry.


The North Coast Journal Table of Contents