NorCal Timber Conflicts Flare Up; Environmentalists Call for Relief

After an era of relative quiet compared to the so-called timber wars of the 1980s and ’90s, conflict over logging in the forests of Northern California has returned.

A plan to log 100- to 150-year-old redwood trees across 320 acres of northwestern Sonoma County has generated fervent opposition from environmentalists and local residents over the past year. Clear-cutting of 5,760 fire-impacted acres in the Klamath National Forest kicked off in April, much of it on land previously designated as endangered species habitat.

The indigenous people of the area, the Karuk tribe, worked with local environmentalists to craft an alternative plan, but the Forest Service largely ignored it. The Karuk and the environmental groups have filed a lawsuit in an attempt to scuttle the logging. Last month, Karuk tribal members and local activists blocked the road leading to the logging in an effort to slow the logging operations pending a legal judgment that could come as soon as late August.

During the last period of conflict 30 years ago, regional environmentalists curtailed some logging operations by setting aside talismanic stands of old-growth redwood trees in parks and preserves, and by pointing out that forests provide important habitat to numerous species, many of them endangered, including northern spotted owls, marbled murrelets and coho salmon.

California is home to some of the most prodigious forests on earth, but the state’s lumber production has steadily declined since the 1950s. A similar trend also occurred in other western states. But now logging companies are coming back to pick over what remains.

“Companies have come in and gotten up to a 16 percent return per year on their timberland, but the forests are only physically capable of yielding about 1 percent per year over the long run,” says Richard Wilson, the former California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection (Cal Fire), which regulates timber harvests on the state’s private lands.

As a result, soil that once grew trees in the forest has washed into streams and chokes vital fish habitat. The trees that remain—many third-, fourth- and sometimes even spindly fifth-growth replacement trees—hold back less floodwater, provide far less animal habitat and sequester far less carbon dioxide.

Even so, timber remains a major industry in California, particularly in northern counties like Humboldt, Shasta, Siskiyou and Mendocino, which account for about half the state’s timber harvest. Roughly 20 percent of that harvest currently occurs on public lands.

In some cases, this logging involves cutting old trees that survived the liquidation logging of previous eras. Most often, though, contemporary lumbering means harvesting from lands scarred by past operations, thus eliciting messy disputes.

During Wilson’s tenure at Cal Fire (1991-1999), he sought to address the problem of over-harvesting by requiring that timber companies file 100-year management plans for sustaining the volume of timber in their forests, called “sustained yield plans.”

But the industry has used its political clout to undermine these regulations, he says, so much so that a large proportion of the state’s remaining timberlands continue to be degraded by companies like Sierra Pacific Industries, California’s largest timber company, which owns 1.8 million acres and relies heavily on clear-cutting.

“We’ve got the rules,” Wilson says. “It’s a question of enforcing them.”

These sorts of struggles are playing out across Northern California and will shape the long-term well-being of rural economies, the health of local ecosystems and the well-being of indigenous cultures.

Northern California’s forests make up the southern leg of the conifer-rich “Pacific temperate rainforest,” which extends from Prince William Sound in Alaska to California’s Central Coast. These forests contain the largest mass of living and decaying material of any ecosystem in the world on a per-unit basis, prompting many scientists and environmentalists to view their maintenance and restoration as crucial in the fight against global climate change.

Crown Jewel

The Marble Mountains are among the ecological jewels of Northern California’s national forest system and home to numerous old-growth conifer stands. In the 1990s, the U.S. Forest Service set aside many mature forest habitats as reserves for the benefit of old-growth-dependent species, such as the northern spotted owl, which is listed as threatened under the Endangered Species Act.

In 2014, a series of wildfires known as the Westside Fire Complex burned across 183,000 acres of the broader region, most of it in the Klamath National Forest. In response, the Forest Service has designed timber sales that include more than 5,700 acres of clear-cuts, including fire-killed and living trees, many of them occurring in the mature forest reserves or on steep slopes above streams federally designated to promote the long-term survival of coho salmon.

The Forest Service often auctions off fire-impacted lands to timber companies for “salvage logging.” The Westside Plan is the largest post-fire timber sale in the recent history of northwestern California.

Klamath National Forest supervisor Patricia Grantham says that the standing dead trees in the forest pose a major long-term fire hazard. By aggressively logging these areas of the forest, her agency is supplying logs to local mills and biomass power plants, contributing to the long-term health of the forest and protecting local residents’ safety.

“When fire returns to the area in the future, it will be smaller and less severe because of the actions we’re taking on the landscape today,” Grantham says.

But environmentalists and tribal members regard the Westside Plan as a giveaway to the timber industry of historic proportions.

“The Westside [Plan] is absolutely the worst project I’ve ever seen in Pacific Northwest national forests,” says Kimberly Baker, of the Arcata-based Environmental Protection Information Center (EPIC). She has been monitoring timber sales on national forests for the past 18 years.

The Karuk tribe, EPIC and three other environmental groups have filed suit in federal court to challenge the project. Logging began in April, and it is unclear how much of the land will remain intact when the judge reaches a verdict. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has also expressed skepticism regarding the Forest Service’s proposal, noting that dead trees “greatly improve” the quality of habitat for spotted owls and other creatures as the forest naturally recovers over time.

According to Fish and Wildlife’s estimate, the Westside Plan could lead to the deaths of 103 northern spotted owls—at least 1 percent of the species’ entire population.

Many of the slopes where the logging is occurring are among the most unstable in the Klamath National Forest. They also happen to be right above several of the Klamath’s most important salmon-bearing streams. By removing anchoring vegetation and carving a spider-web pattern of roads and log landings, the logging threatens to bury the streams with silt.

The Karuk tribe worked with environmental groups to develop an alternative plan that would rely on prescribed fires to regenerate the land over the long run. Logging would be confined to ridgelines, for the purpose of developing fuel breaks, such that some logs would still feed local mills. Much of the Klamath Forest is the Karuk’s aboriginal territory.

The Forest Service’s Grantham says she incorporated most of the Karuk’s input, but Karuk tribe natural resources adviser Craig Tucker says that simply isn’t true. “In reality, the Forest Service basically told us we can go pound sand,” he says, regarding the agency’s response to the Karuk management plan.

According to public records, the Forest Service has spent approximately $24 million developing the Westside logging plan and is auctioning most of the logs for a paltry $2.50 per truckload, thus generating only about $450,000 in revenue for the agency.

“The Karuk tribe’s been here for at least 10,000 years,” Tucker says. “The Forest Service has been here for about a hundred. Yet they don’t listen.”

Wilson, the former Cal Fire chief, says that battles between environmentalists and timber companies will continue until the law limits harvesting practices to sustainable levels that balance the needs of local residents and other species.

“Most of the public doesn’t realize we still have a long way to go to get to sustainability,” he says.


  1. Native Americans used to manage forest and grasslands by periodical burning them. The result of a hundred + years
    of putting out every fire and not cutting for fire control is catastrophic fires that are burning at this very moment in California.

    Surely there should be ways of ending both distributive policies of clear cutting and or letting the green hell we have created burn to the ground. Many of our forest are just plain dieing do to overgrowth and lack of water,beetle infestation, and other blites like sudden oak death and root rot. Just like over crowding in the human world.

    I love a green forest as much as anyone, please don’t be fooled by the environmentalist crowd, an unmanaged forest will sooner or later be lost to everyone.

    • Logging does not reduce forest fire severity or size, weather drives the big, hot fires that burn 95% of the acres burned and 85% of the USFS firefighting budget. Forest Service study, Lydersen et al. (2014) re: the Rim fire said:”wildfire burning under extreme weather conditions, as is often the case with fires that escape initial attack, can produce large areas of high-severity fire even in fuels-reduced forests with restored fire regimes.”

    • You’re right about Native Americans starting fires (it wasn’t to “manage” forests, it was to flush out game), but draw the wrong conclusion. It is fire suppression, not thinning or other so-called forest management, that has led California to this tinder box. Forest fires start naturally too of course (mainly due to lightning) and were burning for millions of years before humans got here — meaning that forest ecosystems have evolved with fire and require it to remain healthy. For those interested in the science on this:

  2. You are dead wrong Empty Gun. Forests know very well how to regrow after fire an how to self-thin via insects etc. USFS thinning doesn’t stop big hot fires that burn 95% of the acreage burned and 85% of the USFS firefighting budget. So-called USFS restoration ruins streams and damages our forests and their genetic adaptation to climate change. The Forest Service is a timber industry welfare program selling our public lands trees below cost. Recreation in Forest Service lands makes 5 times more money for California’s economy than logging and grazing combined. Grantham is lying when she claims burned forest is more flammable, that’s ridiculous. The science has been in on this topic for years, she is lying to get timber money for her agency.

  3. Well Doc,
    It seem Don is way ahead of you.
    I’m talking about selective cutting and clean up and controlled burns.
    The native,s realized not much game lives in a dense dark forest the burning brought back the grasses that deer and the antelope play in.
    Having watched the Yellowstone fires of twenty some years ago eat much of the park leaving dead snags of lodgepole
    all over and seeing the regrowth of that same tree in an even denser mess , many have come to the conclusion that the burn process was not complete and an even great conflagration is possible in those areas that’s repeated over and over again.

    By the way one of the worst and most hazardous areas in the country is our own beloved peninsula.
    If it isn’t cleaned up it will burn up and take everything from hwy 101 to hwy1. These lands are owned by various government, environmental groups and some private. they are overgrown with non native invasive spease that should be removed at the expense of those groups or turned over to the NFS.

    It’s no surprise to me Doc that the NFS is losing money at a $1.50 a tree. Hunting and fishing has always been a winner for the government fee collectors, but the point of the national forest was so we would have wood to build things with. The national parks were there to preserve the lands for recreation and the use of the people.
    By the way the government would like you to stop using the parks as you are wearing them out!

    • Empty Gun, anecdotes and stories are swell, but science has a pretty great track record of coming up with useful models of how the universe works. Wildland fire use has been shown to be the cheapest and most ecologically appropriate policy for most forests. Fuels treatments and thinning have little to no effect on severe fire behavior. Wildfire itself is the most effective treatment for reducing a subsequent fire’s rate of spread, fireline intensity, flame length, and heat per unit of area.

      • Doc,
        Theoretical science and preconceived models of incorrect conclusions have been entertaining me for 60 years.
        That was clear back before DNA, moonwalks and cell phones!

        Wildland fire is certainly the cheapest way to burn down a forest, the problem with that approach is there are a lot of communities of people living and working in and around our forest these days, we are not supposed to be burning along with the forest.

        Burning down a city to get rid of plague ridden rats seemed like a good Idea in the middle ages.
        Today we might try rattraps, poison bait and flee spray even though it is a more expensive and less effective to us that are conservation oriented and not environmentalists.

        Worshipping rats and killing cats and burning down the city’s proved to be about the worst and most costly solution.

        Just think of all those shovel ready jobs we could create. The question is do you want it before or after the fire?

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