The harshest cut

Sierra timber practices aren't front-page news anymore — but the brutal devastation of clear-cutting continues apace
Denuded forest near Arnold

"I wake up at night at 3:30, hearing the logging trucks and knowing what's happening," Susan Robinson complains. "It makes me sick."

Robinson lives just off State Route 4 in Arnold, a Calaveras County community perched on the western slope of the Sierra.

For the past nine years, this feisty retiree has been clamoring to get Sierra Pacific Industries, California's leading timber company, to stop clear-cutting the forest. "I'm the daughter of a forester myself. I am not anti-logging," she told us. "Of course, SPI should be able to log its land. But it shouldn't have the right to obliterate everything."

A decade ago, logging and forestry practices in the Sierra were big news. Media reports, protests, and legislative action focused on SPI's practice of slicing through entire large tracts of land, hacking down every tree, bush, and seedling and leaving nothing but devastation behind.

But most of the news media have long since moved on to other issues — and the clear-cutting continues. If anything, the pace at which SPI is felling the forest has hastened since the intensive logging controversies grabbed headlines in the 1990s.

"When I recently read the June 2000 issue of the Guardian exposing SPI's activities in the Sierra, I was pained because I thought, 'Wow! This could have been written yesterday,'" said Marily Woodhouse, a Sierra Club organizer in Shasta County.

It's not as if nothing has changed under the Sierra sun. Some timber companies have adopted more responsible practices. But SPI is still a major problem. And as the largest private landowner in the state, its footprint is huge. Conservation activists have been exploring new opposition tactics while maintaining their diligent efforts on the legislative, legal, and educational fronts.

Susan Robinson and the other members of the Ebbetts Pass Forest Watch often take visitors to tour the backcountry roads and see the damage for themselves. On Winton Road, plots managed by SPI are adjacent to the Stanislaus National Forest, which is administered by the U.S. Forest Service — and the contrast is staggering.

Patches SPI harvested two years ago are still bare due to herbicide spraying. Between stumps, 10-inch-long replanted ponderosa pines may poke their frail limbs out of the churned soil, but there's nothing left on a 20-acre lot for deer, bobcats, raccoons, or woodpeckers to eat, rest on, or breed in. No bees pollinating. No chickarees denning. It will take decades for the seedlings to reach maturity.

On the opposite side of the gravel road, on Forest Service land, sugar pines, ponderosa pines, lodgepole pines, incense cedars, oaks, and white firs of different ages shelter ferns, mushrooms, and berry plants. The forest has been thinned to reduce fire hazard, but it has not been converted to a monoculture tree farm.

"What grows back after you clear-cut is a plantation," said Doug Bevington of Environment Now. "A forest is not simply a collection of trees. What makes a forest a vibrant ecosystem is its diversity, having different species and different ages. And it's the diversity of the forest that creates the habitat to support more species of life."


You don't need to travel to the Sierra to get the picture — connecting to Google Earth will suffice. Zoom into Arnold and levitate above Highway 4. Beyond the lush forest "beauty strips," the landscape looks like a moth-eaten blanket of evergreens.

Over the past 10 years, SPI has clear-cut 18 square miles in Calaveras County alone. (Clear-cut also includes slightly more moderate logging techniques that leave few trees and snags remaining on an otherwise desert-like tract.)

State records show that between 1996 and 2006 SPI clear-cut 270,000 acres of forests and dumped 335,000 pounds of herbicide into the soil.

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