SACRAMENTO — The state's largest owner of private timberland is dramatically reducing the amount of Sierra Nevada acreage it plans to clear-cut over the next century, officials announced Thursday.
Executives at Sierra Pacific Industries said they will scale back clear-cuts by 70% in response to pressure from residents near its vast logging holdings, scattered from Yosemite to the Oregon border.
Although the sharp change in logging practices could help wildlife, company officials said they are shifting tactics mostly because of aesthetic concerns of neighbors.
"There's a lot of good thinking people who don't like the look of a clear-cut," said Red Emmerson, owner of the Redding-based timber company. "We just want to be good neighbors. That's the reason for making this concession."
Environmentalists, however, were critical.
"What they've come up with is pretty much just window dressing," said Warren Alford, a Sierra Club conservationist. "The real problem with the forest isn't just the aesthetics, it's this dramatic fragmentation. It's affecting a number of species facing extinction."
One of the nation's largest private landowners, Sierra Pacific owns more than 1.5 million acres of California forest, an area bigger than Delaware. In recent years, the company dramatically boosted the amount of timberland it planned to harvest with clear-cutting, which entails chopping down virtually every tree on timber tracts as large as 40 acres.
Before its announcement Thursday, the company was expected to use clear-cuts on about 800,000 acres. Under the new policy, Sierra Pacific probably will clear-cut about 240,000 acres.
Instead of clear-cuts, the company plans to largely use a selective logging technique that leaves either clumps of trees or individual conifers dispersed across the logged turf, usually about four to eight an acre.
Oaks and a few larger trees would be spared to reduce the visual blight while still allowing enough light onto the forest floor to allow growth of the next generation of commercial wood.
The new policy, company officials said, will be applied most aggressively along public roads, scenic areas and in some cases more remote swaths of timber.
Where clear-cutting does occur, they said, care will be taken to leave "fuzzy" edges and contours to minimize the harsh appearance at the edge of the remaining forest.
Company officials expect to absorb a hit to their bottom line, with each acre yielding up to 15% less board feet of lumber.
"Our biggest question is how much growth do we lose," said Tom Nelson, the company's forest policy director.
In recent years, the privately held company has come under withering criticism over clear-cuts from elected leaders and residents in several Sierra counties. Although timber once dominated the Sierra economy, tourism is a leading fiscal engine--and forest beauty a prime concern.
The company's clear-cuts in Calaveras County along a scenic highway and astride a reservoir used for drinking water caused an uproar. Last year, Sierra Pacific halted operations there and launched a review of its cutting practices.
Farther north in Nevada County, a pack of activists known as the Yuba Nation bedeviled the company, using acts of civil disobedience in hopes of thwarting logging along the Middle Fork of the Yuba River.
The company's longtime foes suggested that the tactical shift won't leave enough big trees to ensure any chance for natural regeneration of the forest. In effect, the woods would remain virtual tree farms, just as they had with clear-cuts, they said.
"This is a PR stunt by Sierra Pacific," said Brian Vincent, a spokesman for American Lands Alliance. "They're essentially repackaging clear-cuts and calling them a different name."
Under the plan, the company could leave only an acre of trees unscathed on a typical 20-acre tract, Vincent said. "It looks like a clear-cut, it acts like a clear-cut, it still is a clear-cut."
Kathy Bailey, the Sierra Club's California forestry director, suggested the company simply hopes to ease the growing public scrutiny of its logging operations.
"They just want to be left alone," Bailey said. "They would like to go back to the days when their plans raced through blind."
State forestry officials, who pass muster on timber-cutting operations on California's private lands, vowed to closely review the company's ongoing operations to ensure that the environment is protected.
Andrea Tuttle, state forestry director, said Sierra Pacific's voluntary shift "will greatly reduce the visual impact that was contemplated for the state."