Monterey County's coast redwoods face challenges from logging, tourists.
Thursday, April 16, 1998
If there is a tree associated with California, it must be the coast redwood. With its tall, ramrod-straight trunk stretching majestically hundreds of feet into the skies, the coast redwood symbolizes the limitless horizons of the California dream, the physical and spiritual grandeur of the nation''s most populous state.
Redwoods are not only the tallest trees in the world, but also among the oldest. Redwoods dating back to before the birth of Christ are still providing shade to the dark, moist valleys and canyons along the northern California coast.
Big Sur marks the southernmost boundary of California''s redwood forests, which stretch north into Oregon. These fog-loving trees are rarely found more than 40 miles inland from the Pacific.
Redwoods flourish in wet climates. According to Paul Henson and Daniel Usner, authors of The Natural History of Big Sur, this affinity for wet weather may explain why redwoods in Big Sur''s relatively warm, dry weather don''t grow as tall as their giant relatives in Northern California. Our local variety tops out at about 200 feet, compared to almost 400 feet for redwoods in Humboldt and Del Norte counties.
Left to their own devices, the hardy redwood forests would easily outlive us all. But their wood is prized by loggers and homesteaders, and the timber industry has been engaged for years in pitched battles with environmentalists in the state''s courtrooms and legislative chambers.
You don''t have to go to the Pacific Northwest to see spotted owl lovers willing to put their bodies on the line to protect these long-stemmed trees. More than a decade ago, Big Sur activist Margaret Owings put herself between a redwood grove and a CalTrans bulldozer on Highway 1 in Big Sur.
"These trees live for more than 1,000 years," says Carmel Valley resident MaryAnn (Corky) Matthews, state forestry coordinator for the California Native Plant Society and a well-known local activist.
"They are real patriarchs. They need our protection."
Until 1983, Monterey County was able to stem the logging tide by requiring use permits from loggers, in addition to an official Timber Harvest Plan (THP) approved by the California Department of Forestry. But in 1983, that power was taken away from the county by Senate Bill 856. Today, counties'' powers to control logging within their jurisdiction is severely curtailed.
Now, it is ultimately the state forestry department that gives the green or red light to commercial harvesting plans.
"A county can zone areas so as not to allow timber harvesting, but they cannot regulate [approved] timber harvesting," explains Dennis Orrick, deputy chief of forest practice for the Department of Forestry and Fire Protection.
The latest threats to the Big Sur redwood came in the form of two timber harvesting plans (THPs) put forward little more than a year ago: the first, proposed by Carmel logger Ken Allen, would have removed about half the trees from a nine-acre redwood forest in Palo Colorado Canyon. The second, proposed by the Menashe Corp. of Grass Valley, aimed at cutting timber at the top of Mill Creek, 55 miles south of Rio Road on Highway 1.
Both of these projects were halted before chain-saw met tree trunk. Tim Green, of Big Sur Coastwatch, says the Palo Colorado THP was initially held up for geological considerations. "They were concerned about things like stability of the slope and soil erosion, the problems this project would cause to the water system," he says.
But as the project came under closer scrutiny, a secondary issue emerged that took public precedence over the first. "Palo Colorado is no longer a wild forest, it''s a community of more than 300 people," he says. "The impact of doing commercial cuts in a neighborhood came into play, and became a factor to consider."
Matthews points out that Monterey redwoods are unique, and should enjoy special protection. They lie in a "high-use subdistrict," where, according to the forestry department''s own Forest Practice Rules, "the growing of commercial timber is subjected to pressures for competing land uses, such as recreation, water and urbanization."
Both the Big Sur Land Use Plan and the Los Padres National Forest Plan also discourage commercial logging of the coast redwood, she points out, because of the need to protect watersheds for our local water supply, recreational needs, and the preservation of habitat for endangered species.
Public opposition to the Palo Colorado logging proposal eventually killed the project, or at least stalled it. "The California Department of Forestry kept procrastinating," says Matthews. "They saw they had a very unpopular project. They kept putting more and more requirements on [the applicant] until he withdrew his application in late December last year. He said he''d resubmit the proposal within a week, but then the rains came. I''m sure he''ll come back with something."
But the pause in considering the THP proposals came after almost a year of study and hearings by the forestry department. That expenditure of money and effort might have been better spent elsewhere, Matthews says. If the proposal is resubmitted, it could be sidelined if a local group like the Big Sur Land Trust agrees to purchase the timber rights from their present owners at the same price the logging concern was prepared to pay: $94,000. But that, too, is a huge expense for a local land trust, "particularly when you don''t even get the land, just the timber rights," says Matthews.
In fact, Matthews says, the whole scenario of a counter-purchase by a land trust is somewhat distasteful, because of how blatantly it appears to be planned. "We are offended that all this work and expense is really being done so the owners of the timber rights can sell them to a land trust for maximum return," she wrote last year to the department of forestry. "This sets the precedent that anyone who owns redwood trees can threaten to cut his trees unless he is paid to leave them alone."
The second Big Sur Timber Harvest Plan, proposed for the head of Mill Creek, was put on hold by the forestry department, which has asked the California Department of Fish and Game to do a two-year study to determine whether an endangered bird, the marbled murrelet, uses these particular trees as a nesting place. "If they do live there, that means no cutting," says Coastwatch''s Green.
Dennis Orick with the forestry department says the decision date has been extended until May 2, while Fish and Game determines whether the two-year study is needed. "This is the last issue under consideration," Orrick says.
"It''s a blessing that neither one of these plans went through, because with El Ni¤o, the slope erosion would have been horrific," Matthews notes. She and other activists believe the best way to control logging of our coast redwoods is for regulatory power to be returned to the counties.
"Monterey must reclaim its right to home rule for the regulation of logging," she says.
Assemblymember Fred Keeley (D-Boulder Creek) has sponsored a bill to do just that. AB 187, now in the Senate appropriations committee, would allow the five counties of the so-called Southern Sub-District (which includes Monterey) to hold public hearings on proposed Timber Harvest Plans, and amend those plans if they wish, two things they do not now have the power to do.
Keeley staffmember Dave Beunn says the bill is coming under heavy opposition and is "in a hold mode." He says Keeley''s office might have to amend it before it continues through the Senate.
Loggers aren''t the only folks threatening local redwoods. Well-meaning campers also pose a health hazard to the giant trees.
Pfeiffer State Park in Big Sur has an old-growth redwood grove that has been encroached on since the mid-1920s by 70 campsites plunked down right in its midst, in an area now called Main Camp. "Those campsites have had their effect on the grove," Green says. "The grove is showing real stress, and geologists are worried."
Pitching tents in the same spot for more than half a century can cause real harm, even to giant redwoods, despite campers'' best intentions. "This grove has been loved to death," says Matthews.
Tom Moss, Monterey District ecologist for the state parks system, notes that the redwood''s intricate root system, one of the physiological characteristics that has helped the species endure 135 million years, is easily damaged by soil compaction caused by thousands of pairs of hiking boots tramping overground. "When the roots are damaged, the tree isn''t able to take up as much air, water and other nutrients," Moss says. "The tree becomes less vigorous, and it eventually results in a reduction in the tree''s longevity."
In the mid-1980s, Moss continues, state parks stopped building campsites in the middle of old-growth redwood groves. "They realized that campgrounds aren''t the best thing to put in the middle of these trees," he says.
In order to preserve this particular redwood grove, which Moss calls "one of the finest redwood groves in our area," the General Plan for Pfeiffer State Park proposes relocating those 70 campsites to a less environmentally-sensitive area of the park. The move could take up to 10 years, Moss says.
Doing so will help protect the twin goals of the state parks system, which Moss says are "preserving the redwoods, while preserving the opportunity for people to experience them."
Matthews considers the campsite removal proposal "an excellent plan," but not one that will meet with universal public approval, particularly given the large number of campers and hikers who journey so far to enjoy the natural splendors of the Big Sur forest. "It will be a hard sell," she says. "This is a very popular tourist area." cw