Retreat site for HIV patients could feel impacts
Earth Abides Land Trust is a haven.
In a forested meadow the trust owns east of Sheep Ranch, volunteers with the Catholic Worker movement grow organic vegetables and hold retreats for people living with HIV.
So it was an unwelcomed surprise this spring for Earth Abides residents taking a walk along Armstrong Road when they saw a yellow notice posted on a tree announcing that Sierra Pacific Industries was seeking state permits to log nearby.
Chelsea Collonge looked into the 361-acre harvest plan, and learned that most of the harvest – including areas only about a mile from Earth Abides – would be logged using what foresters call an “alternative prescription.”
Critics call it clear-cutting.
“I feel a responsibility for that area of forest,” Collonge said. “To raze it and replace it with factory trees, I just don’t think that’s fair to it.”
Collonge put that concern in a letter, and also told California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection officials that she’s worried the proposed logging will potentially send herbicides down Upper O’Neil Creek and expose Earth Abides guests and residents to noise and air pollution during the logging operation.
That letter made her just one of a number of individuals and agencies that have commented on the Swiss Ranch Timber Harvest Plan. Those comments ranged from a request by Calaveras County Water District to have Sierra Pacific Industries take precautions to prevent pollution of streams that flow into county residents’ drinking water supply via the Calaveras River watershed, to criticism from a representative of environmental watchdog group Ebbetts Pass Forest Watch that state regulators and SPI fail to consider alternatives to clear-cutting.
Those documents reveal both the continuation of a long-time divide between clear-cutting critics and supporters, and a maze of state regulations that touch everything from protect ing acorn-producing oaks needed for the Rail Road Flat deer herd to how much of an unlogged buffer zone has to be left to protect creeks.
Foresters acknowledge that alternative prescription logging is the “closest” logging method to clear-cutting. Both are so-called “even-age” logging methods in which all the trees on plots of 20 acres or so are removed and then replaced with new plantings.
What makes “alternative prescription” different is that loggers retain a small percentage of the trees on site. Sometimes the retained trees serve as a visual screen to soften the aesthetic impact on neighbors. Retained trees can also be chosen to preserve habitat.
Sierra Pacific Industries spokesman Mark Pawlicki was on vacation this week and not immediately able to provide detailed responses to questions about the Swiss Ranch Timber Harvest Plan. But documents the company filed indicate its foresters believe they are managing the firm’s land in a way that will, over time, ensure both healthy stands of forest and a sustained yield of timber to feed demand for lumber and paper.
And Adam Frese, the unit forester for the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection’s Tuolumne-Calaveras Unit, said he’s visited many SPI logging sites and agrees that the company’s methods are sound.
Frese said he understands critics’ concerns that industrial tree farming could potentially replace a diverse forest habitat with a plantation that could harm wildlife and pose other risks.
“I understand what they are getting at, but it is not what I see on the ground,” Frese said. “I see vigorous stands regenerating.”
One of the most prominent critics of SPI’s clear-cuts in Calaveras County is Susan Robinson, a board member for Ebbetts Pass Forest Watch.
“It is our view that clear-cutting has the most negative impacts of the silvaculture methods. In the THP they don’t describe why a less impactful but still-profitable logging method can’t be used instead.”
Frese said foresters are reluctant to do selective logging on a large scale because it is less efficient, requiring repeated visits to an area over many years as a few trees are removed each year. In contrast, even-age (clear-cut) methods allow an area to be harvested and replanted all at once.
“It is considered responsible forest management,” he said of the even-age methods.
Robinson and many other critics can’t be convinced. They note that the character of the forest will be permanently changed.
“Some of the trees being cut down are hundreds of years old, certainly the oaks. They (loggers) are going to come back and harvest again in 60 or 70 years,” she said of the company’s planned management practices.
Frese acknowledges that many people who comment on a timber harvest plan may not get what they want, but he said the comments are carefully considered and often do shape the final plan.
Concerns over the health of the Rail Road Flat deer herd, which winters in the Swiss Ranch Timber Harvest Plan area, for example, contributed to requirements in the plan to preserve oaks.
An initial draft of the plan was vague about how many oaks would be kept, but the current draft requires 400 square feet of basal oak area per acre to be preserved where the oaks are present, Frese said.
Acorns are a key food source for deer in the winter.
This particular timber harvest plan has been under consideration since it was filed March 10. Foresters and specialists from several state agencies inspected the site over three days in May. The public comment period has been extended several times as officials discovered issues that needed to be resolved.
The latest public comment period is scheduled to close Friday, Aug. 15. After that, if everything checks out, the plan could be approved as early as Aug. 18, Frese said.
In the past, critics of timber harvest plans have sued to stop them. That hasn’t happened, at least in Calaveras County, for half a decade.
Robinson said that while some elements in the plan address important issues like the deer herd, she sees a systematic failure of state foresters and SPI to look at the cumulative effects of clear-cuts across the region on wildlife.
John Buckley, executive director of the Central Sierra Environmental Resource Center, is more optimistic.
He said that at least on questions involving logging on public lands, rather than the private SPI forests, he has seen progress in recent years toward environmentalists, state officials and private industry reaching compromises that both allow needed logging and preserve environmental values.
Buckley said the work by Yosemite Stanislaus Solutions, a coalition of agencies and private groups, is one example. As a result, he says authorities have been able to reach compromises allowing speeded logging following last year’s Rim Fire, he said.
Someday, Buckey said, he hopes that same more flexible approach can also come to discussions about logging on private lands like those owned by SPI.
If that happens, however, it won’t be in time to change the Swiss Ranch Harvest Plan, which means residents of Earth Abides could sometime soon be listening to the rumble of logging trucks.
“First of all, we are grieved over the damage to the nearby forest ecosystem, animals, insects, soil bacteria, etc. impact that will occur, as well as the additional cumulative impact of SPI’s clear-cutting on our county, bioregion and Earth,” Collonge wrote.