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Logging Friends Turn Foes

Environment: Water damage angers North Coast neighbors and may lead to new state rules.

April 18, 2002|ERIC BAILEY | TIMES STAFF WRITER

EUREKA — In this land of tree-sitters and tie-dye, Kristi Wrigley isn't your typical North Coast logging foe.

She's a third-generation apple farmer, a lifelong Republican. Turning trees into boards doesn't usually make her angry. But ever since Pacific Lumber Co. boosted its clear-cut of redwoods upstream from her family's 25-acre ranch, Wrigley said she has seen problems pour forth.

Sticky mud cascading down hillsides filled Elk River out back. Flood waters hit like never before. The apple orchards choked. No longer could Wrigley draw from a crystal-clear stream. Now her drinking water is trucked in.

It's left Wrigley indignant. Along with a host of others in Humboldt County, she believes that the California Department of Forestry has failed to control the effect that timber harvests have had on downstream neighbors.

But that may be changing, with repercussions that could ripple through private forest lands throughout the state.

The North Coast Regional Water Quality Control Board is set to begin a two-day hearing today to decide if it should throw a new regulatory hurdle in front of Pacific Lumber, setting strict limits for the amount of silt that flows off the vast acreage it cuts above the Elk River, Freshwater Creek and several other troubled streams.

If so, pressure could increase for similar restrictions in the timber country of the Sierra Nevada and other California forests. "It could," concluded Forestry Department spokesman Louis Blumberg, "have large implications for timber harvesting in this state."

Pacific Lumber, which owns 211,000 timber acres in Humboldt County, has hopes this year of a big harvest on Elk River, where the chain saws have been quiet for the last two summers. But the water board could take actions that would end up severely restricting how many trees are felled or even halt the cut altogether.

"We're concerned," said Jim Branham, the firm's government relations director. "This would represent another regulatory burden when we're already the most tightly restricted private landowner in the state."

For generations, Pacific Lumber logged its lands at a leisurely rate that kept neighbors happy. But in 1986, the firm was acquired by Texas financier Charles Hurwitz and his Maxaam Inc.

The cut shot up dramatically.

On the Elk River's north fork, logging went from 72 acres a year in the decade before Hurwitz bought the firm to 504 annual acres after the purchase.

Water regulators said the firm's operations caused more silt to cascade into the streams, washing mostly from poorly constructed logging roads. From 1990 to 1997, the firm was cited by the state for 230 violations.

In recent years, however, Pacific Lumber "has cleaned up their act," said Blumberg of the California Department of Forestry. To the dismay of environmentalists, the department has concluded that Pacific Lumber could log 600 acres a year on the Elk River and an additional 500 annually above Freshwater Creek without making things worse.

More Lumbering to Reduce Problems?

Make Pacific Lumber officials said renewed logging will actually reduce the problems, providing income for roadwork and other improvements to slash sediment flowing from their property. Jeff Barrett, Pacific Lumber's fish and wildlife director, said computer modeling indicates that 11 yards of muck will be eliminated by road improvements for every yard produced by hillsides freshly shorn of trees.

"We'll do more to fix these problems by harvesting than by not harvesting," Barrett said.

Such conclusions are laughable to environmentalists.

They contend that the logging needs to be slowed dramatically if not stopped, or the meandering streams of the redwood country--and other spots in the state's timberlands--will be lost for generations to come.

"These watersheds are being ripped apart," said Cynthia Elkins of the Environmental Protection Information Center in Garberville. "You just cannot have logging like this and clean water at the same time."

Though the water quality debate could affect the future of salmon and steelhead trout that once filled the North Coast streams, this fight is less about endangered fish and more about people.

Moreover, the central players aren't the colorful collection of anti-logging activists that typically dominate the front lines hereabout, but rather workaday homeowners who inhabit the lush turf downstream from Pacific Lumber's timber lands.

"Most of them are private people who don't like to complain," said Ken Miller of the Humboldt Water Shed Council, which is pressing the clean-water fight. "They're not hippies. They're not yuppies. They like logging; they just don't want it to hurt them. And they're very upset."

Residents said the rising sediments have polluted wells and caused septic tanks to boil over. Washing machines have been worn out by the grit that gets in. Houses that once seemed safe have been flooded repeatedly. Some have spent thousands of dollars having their homes raised a few feet to escape the water.

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