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Bill Would Alter Timber Rules

Legislature passes a measure to give water quality boards the authority to bar logging on private land if it pollutes streams.

September 16, 2003|Bettina Boxall | Times Staff Writer

In what backers are calling the most important piece of forestry legislation in decades, the state Senate and Assembly passed a bill last week giving regional water quality boards the power to block logging projects on private land if they pollute streams and rivers.

The measure, headed to the governor's desk, is the most recent development in years of controversy over logging's effect on water quality, especially on the North Coast.

"It sounds like a fairly modest change, but it is by far the most substantial forest reform since the forest practice rules were created 30 years ago," said Paul Mason of the Sierra Club.

Timber harvesting on the state's 8-million acres of private woodlands is regulated by the state Department of Forestry and Fire Protection under a 1973 law that environmentalists have long criticized as weak and inadequate.

In the North Coast region alone, thousands of miles of streams and rivers violate federal water quality standards because of heavy sediment pollution. Some salmon stocks are in steep decline. Logging, which can increase erosion and raise stream temperatures by removing shade trees, has been blamed as a major culprit.

The bill's author, Senate leader John Burton (D-San Francisco), said it is only appropriate that water quality boards be given more power because "they're the ones that determine what happens in the water."

Timber representatives strongly oppose the measure, saying it duplicates existing environmental reviews and would lead to costly delays in an industry beset by regulation and global competition. "I think this creates a huge additional layer of bureaucratic red tape and regulatory gridlock by blurring responsibility," said David Bischel, president of the California Forestry Assn.

At Pacific Lumber Co., which has been at the center of some heated battles over private timber operations, external relations director Jim Branham said the proposed law was unnecessary. "We think there's ample evidence the water quality is being protected under the existing [process] and hope the governor would veto the legislation."

If Davis instead signs the bill, Branham added, "We expect there very well may be additional requirements" imposed by the regional water boards on timber harvest plans.

Under current law, water boards are consulted when the state forestry department reviews logging plans. Additionally, water quality officials have long had authority to impose waste discharge requirements on private timber operations. But boards have generally waived such restrictions. Moreover, in a Humboldt County ruling now on appeal, a Superior Court judge in January challenged the boards' authority to impose their own requirements.

The bill would make the court ruling moot by directing that a timber harvest plan could not be approved if water regulators found that logging discharges would violate the regional water quality control plan. The measure applies only to waterways polluted by sediment.

The new law would alter logging regulations so that the department of forestry "is not calling all the shots," said Karen Douglas, general counsel for the Planning and Conservation League.

Although the timber industry has been a significant contributor to Gov. Gray Davis in the past, and is expected to lobby him to kill the measure, the administration played a hand in crafting the final version and is believed to look favorably on it.

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