Reflections on  Forestry When Confronted With the First Timber Harvest Plan  of the Year in My Watershed

Clearcut, Coast Range. Photo: Jeffrey St. Clair.

Timber Harvest Plans (THPs) are like demure invitations to dance. A timber company sidles up to Cal Fire, which extends its soft hand. The music is an ancient minuet, its steps designed almost fifty years ago. The cadences repeat themselves, harmoniously, as the Agencies partner up and take their places, stately, in the still, ethereal atmosphere. Then, after a few fleurets and some courtesies exchanged, the logs start rolling out of the forest.

The  minuet, made famous by Louis XIV of France, used to have meaning: it was metaphor for the serene, hierarchical  architecture of society, where every character played a discrete  part in time and place. In the modern world, however, timber harvest plans  are an oxymoronic  metaphor for chaos.  Outside the ballroom, chunks of Antarctica the size of  New York are falling into the sea. The Gulf Stream  vacillates uncertainly. Scientists grasp at fantastically expensive and risky schemes to sprinkle the stratosphere with sunlight-reflecting particles. And, as Earth warms, a quarter of  its people  face  dying  of thirst while others are swept away by floods or freezes.

The skies are emptying, one third fewer birds now  than when the  California Forest Practice Rules were written  almost 50 years ago.  According to the World Wildlife Fund, taken together, mammals, birds, fish, reptiles and amphibians have  declined  70%. The insect  apocalypse is hurtling along  8 times faster.

The agent of this chaos is the still-increasing   concentration of carbon-dioxide in  earth’s atmosphere, caused by human activity. We have returned the carbon, sequestered by ancient vegetation, in oil and coal, to the atmosphere. As for the contemporary, still-actively sequestering vegetation, we destroyed 80% of it before 1990.

Amidst the wreckage the minuet, choreographed by the revered California Forest Practice Rules, proceeds  with inviolate  composure. Biomass  of all sorts is conveyed  to the mills: the US is by far the  largest wood exporter in the world. Slash and small trees are  made into wood pellets, the rest for lumber. “Old growth” is now  extremely rare. Trees such as doug firs and redwoods, which can live thousands of years, are now harvested at 40 to 70 years old, leaving no generation to replace their falling elders.

Any concern about  global warming is finessed with phrases such as “there  is a natural variability in earth’s climate” and “considerable debate regarding its causes”. Fear of catastrophic fire, founded on rising temperature and wind velocity, and loss of moisture in logged-over areas, is met with the entrenched dogma that fuel load reduction is critical for fire protection. Calfire asserts this despite comprehensive studies that “timber harvest, through its effects on forest structure and local microclimate, has increased fire severity more than any other human activity”(USFS:1996).

The preservation of  the last stands of planetary  forest  are our last  best hope for curbing  carbon emissions in the shortest amount of time. If all logging were stopped today, and the forest allowed to grow, our remaining trees could remove 1/7 of the world’s carbon-dioxide exhalations annually. Redwoods and, to a slightly lesser extent firs, sequester carbon at a rate 2.5  times the rate of tropical rainforests. And the older the tree, the more efficiently it can sequester carbon. But as forests are logged, this sequestering engine is lost, and forests will no longer be sufficient to mitigate climate change.

Despite the alarm of the UN Council on Biodiversity, that 1million species are at risk of extinction, “which paints an ominous picture with serious consequences for humans as well as the rest of life on Earth”, CDFW  declined to visit either of the last two THPs I reviewed.

But they are paid by the public to be guardians of our wildlife, a public trust. As such, they are  understaffed, and underfunded. Perhaps they assume that the “certified sustainable” status of our  three  dominant timber companies( who pay for their own certification)  dissolves their public obligations. Anyway, regulating  the cannabis industry  demands  their energies…as  both the climate and biodiversity crises worsen.

It is suicide. We must end  this  fatal minuet, and retire the senile forest practice rules. Measured carbon sequestration by forests, letting them grow, a practice designated as “pro-forestation, should be  defined as a “high quality timber product” and recognized as achieving the goals of 14CCR933.11, “maximum sustained productivity”.

And, let the industry  instead invest in and market a different building material, one that doesn’t impose the death penalty.

Ellen Taylor can be reached at