Industrial Logging in the Sierra Nevada

Sierra Pacific Industries

ClearcutSierra Pacific Industries (SPI) is the second largest private landowner in America and the largest landowner by far in the state of California. It is a privately owned company which owns more than 1.5 million acres of land in California and is the largest timberland owner in the United States. It is also the largest harvester of federal timber in California, cutting 39% of all the trees logged from the state’s national forests.

The primary logging practice of SPI is in the form of clearcutting. They have clearcut hundreds of thousands of acres of both public and private land. Clearcut logging is a devastating practice that is causing significant harm to the wildlife, water, and public lands that belong to all Californians.

SPI Eldorado clearcut While there are more responsible, sustainable ways to log, SPI persists in its destructive ways, turning forests into tree farms and releasing tons of pesticides and chemicals into the land and water. Their practices increase fire risk to local communities and destroy valuable wildlife habitat. Industrial timber harvests result in long term increases in carbon emissions, both from clearcutting and because young trees farms lack the complex processes and elements of a natural forest, which normally would store large amounts of carbon.

In the past, private logging companies in the region managed much of their timberlands in a responsible fashion that provided good habitat value for most wildlife species. In the last decade however, SPI has bought out all its competitors in the region and is now aggressively logging its lands with widespread clearcutting, followed by bulldozing, herbicide treatments, and the creation of sterile tree plantations.

SPI Plumas clearcut In August 2007, Sierra Pacific Industries settled out of court to pay the state a $13 million fine for polluting the air and endangering the health of Sierra Nevada and Central Valley communities. SPI also had to pay millions more to upgrade outdated equipment that for years has spewed soot and dangerous chemicals into the air that our families breathe. Not surprisingly, SPI’s website claims "family values at the heart of Sierra Pacific Industries," but actions speak louder than words, as discovered by a joint investigation by the California Air Resources Board, the California Attorney General, and the Placer County Air Pollution Control District. The agencies discovered that SPI intentionally failed to report emissions, exceeded emission limits, and failed to operate and maintain air pollution control equipment as required by law.

Aggressive Clearcutting

SPI Shasta clearcut Between 1992 and 1999, SPI increased its clearcutting by an astonishing 2,426%. SPI plans to clearcut 1 million more acres (1,562 square miles) – an area larger than the state of Rhode Island – over the next 70 years. No private timber company has ever clearcut so many acres in an area such as the Sierra Nevada. In some watersheds, SPI has cleared as many as 3,000 acres within eight years.

Clearcutting is a destructive logging technique that removes all vegetation within the area and replaces a complex forest ecosystem with a denuded landscape of disturbed soils and an herbicide-laden plantation. Many rare species of plants that are dependent upon old-growth forest conditions, as well as those that benefit from fire, are disappearing from California's forests under industrial timber management regimes such as SPI's. Clearcutting also fragments the forest landscape, eliminating wildlife habitat and making it impossible for some species to migrate, find shelter or locate food. In short, SPI's management regime is permanently eliminating critical habitat for many plants and animals in the Sierra Nevada.

The original Sierra Nevada Framework requires the agency to protect plants and animals that depend on old-growth forests, and prevent them from slipping toward extinction. Sadly, SPI’s massive level of clearcutting on private lands threatens these conservation goals in many parts of the Sierra. Efforts to restore the Pacific fisher for example, in the northern and southern Sierra Nevada are further impaired by SPI’s clearcutting practices which reduces the habitat connectivity needs of this species.

Long Term Impacts on Functional Wildlife Habitat

The following graphic illustrates the pathways in which SPI’s industrial activities are entraining species towards extinction on nearly 2 million acres of biologically important forests in Northern California.

Graphic of Long Term Impacts from SPI Clearcutting

The consequences of permitting SPI to continue this level of clearcutting in the watersheds of Northern California’s forests are likely to be long term and irreversible. We can expect increases in wildfire and carbon emissions, hotter and drier climate changes, extinctions of plants and wildlife, and irreparable loss of esthetic and recreational values as a result. 

Collins Pine Company -- FSC Certified Alternative

Collins Pine Company, a century-old family owned company based in Chester, California, has been practising sustainable forestry for generations. The company has demonstrated an exemplary commitment to the core principles that are behind FSC (Forest Stewardship Council) certification standards. Collins is dedicated to long term, sustained yield while preserving wildlife habitat. Multiple tree species are preserved in their forest, ranging in age up to 400 years. Below, you can view an MSNBC interview with Collins Pine forest manager Jay Francis (2008).

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Fixing the Problem

California’s current forestry regulations, administered by Cal Fire, allow SPI to clearcut more than a million acres of California forests with no limit on the amount of clearcutting in a single watershed, and no protections for sensitive watersheds or old-growth forests. And although we have focused our discussion here on SPI, there are other companies operating in Northern California that are also guilty of the same types of ecologically devastating logging practices. The problem is chronic and cumulative, and without intervention soon, many plants and animals will simply disappear from our forests.

The State Water Resources Control Board is required to ensure that logging does not violate the Clean Water Act but the water board has delegated this authority to the California Department of Fire and Forestry which consistently has approved logging plans that have failed to protect water quality.

In 2007, the California Department of Fish and Game completed the California Wildlife Action Plan, which specifically identified logging impacts as a threat to the survival of wildlife in our region's forests. The WAP identified several remedies, including:

    • State and federal forest managers and state and federal wildlife managers should cooperatively develop timber-harvest cumulative-impact standards for each watershed or group of adjacent watersheds of the Sierra, Cascades, and Modoc regions to protect aquatic ecosystems and conserve wildlife habitat.
    • Using the best-available science, forest and wildlife managers should determine the extent, pattern, and pace for timber-harvest in a forest watershed or cluster of watersheds.
    • Ecologically based standards or limits should be set for timber-harvest. State and federal forest managers should coordinate to ensure that cumulative effects of timber-harvest plans for public and private lands meet the standards for each watershed

    We also recommend:

    • Banning clearcutting in favor of intermediate harvest styles which still allow for timber production and profits without environmental devastation.
    • Limiting the amount of clearcutting that can be conducted in any watershed.
    • Creating buffers along all streams that will be free from any logging activity, and increasing the number of large trees that are protected on industrial forestlands.
    • Set sustainable limits for logging within a single watershed.
    • Limiting the use of herbicides that persist in soils, contaminate streams, and threaten the survival of aquatic species such as fish and amphibians.
    • Placing lead jurisdiction for regulation of Timber Harvest Plans within the State Water Quality Control Board, with cooperation from the Department of Fish and Game and the California Geological Survey

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