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The Timber Wolves

tree stump
Good Stumps Make Good Neighbors: When Vikki Pachera and Allan Erbes found out that 100 acres next to their Santa Cruz Mountains home were slated for a major timber harvest, they got busy and contacted more than 200 neighbors--going door to door, writing and phoning--to invite them to a community meeting.

Photo by Christopher Gardner

In the past decade, lumber prices have doubled and logging in the Santa Cruz Mountains has quadrupled. Neighbors, tired of damaged watersheds and truck traffic, are now fighting back.

By Kelly Luker

VIKKI PACHERA, an engineering manager for San Jose's Cadence Design Systems, found her dream home high in the Santa Cruz Mountains. Part of a Los Gatos subdivision known as Villa del Monte, the rustic two-story home had a back yard with a seemingly endless redwood forest that dropped sharply down the mountainside to a burbling brook called Burns Creek. But that dream world developed a distinctly nightmarish tinge when Pachera learned that more than 100 acres would be logged right next to that pristine back yard.

Down the road a piece, San Jose commuters Kathy Dean and Nick Gombos had just completed their home when they made a similarly distressing discovery: More than 300 acres of oak, madrone and redwoods would be logged below the couple's front window.

Dean, Gombos and Pachera, along with many other Silicon Valley folks newly transplanted to Santa Cruz, are discovering to their dismay what mountain folks have known for a while: Logging has increased dramatically in the past decade and shows no signs of abating. And, although Santa Cruz County is touted as having some of the strictest timber harvest guidelines in the state, critics maintain that legal loopholes, shoddy logging practices and poor oversight have given out-of-town logging interests carte blanche to damage sensitive watersheds and create havoc in small mountain communities.

While most attention has been focused north on the Headwaters controversy--the proposed clearcutting of thousands of acres of old-growth redwoods in Humboldt County--less attention has been paid to logging in our own back yard. There is an assumption--a dangerous one, some would argue--that Santa Cruz County's stricter guidelines protect the environment. Yet the same economic pressures that fuel clearcutting in Humboldt County are at work here in the Santa Cruz Mountains.

The price of timber has more than doubled in the past 10 years. As a result, timber harvests from Santa Cruz County have almost quadrupled in that same time span. Where 7 million board feet were logged in 1986, 27 million board feet were logged out of the forests last year.

Nature lovers may appreciate the redwoods for their majesty, but accelerating timber values make them downright irresistible to investors. Out-of-county interests have snapped up mountain parcels for years, counting on timber's rising value and rightly predicting the depletion of timber in northern forests. Now they are cashing in. Last year, absentee owners--as determined by addresses listed on logging permits--accounted for more than 80 percent of the total acreage for which timber harvest permits were filed in Santa Cruz County.

"There's a big influx of out-of-county interests buying timberland and logging aggressively," notes Betsy Herbert, whose activist organization Citizens for Responsible Forest Management was one of the groups that helped compile statistics on timber harvesting from California Department of Forestry and State Board of Equalization records.

Although Santa Cruz County does not allow clearcutting, it does allow 60 percent of the biggest trees to be logged every 10 years. "The local foresters," she says, naming Santa Cruzans Steve Butler and Mike Jani, "won't do that [log the maximum legally allowable] because it would be too much. The out-of-towners have learned to tweak the rules and get as much as if they were clearcutting."

The economy also suffers from outside investors. Up until the '50s and early '60s, there were 10 to 12 sawmills in the county. Now there's only one: Big Creek Lumber. "Raw materials are leaving and not being processed in the county," says Jani, chief forester of Big Creek Lumber. He notes that many services ancillary to timber harvest, such as trucking, also are handled by outside interests. And county coffers reap few benefits from timber interests. Properties zoned as Timber Production Zones are assessed at only $188 an acre, although they are often purchased for $3,500 to $5,000 an acre.

Not in My Backwoods

JOHN BENBOW of MSB Timberland, from Humboldt County's city of Fortuna, filed to log 59 acres. Greg Koppala, who recently moved from Healdsburg to Watsonville, filed a few weeks later to harvest 84 acres adjacent to Benbow's. Both parcels sit adjacent to the Villa del Monte subdivision, behind the home of Vikki Pachera and her companion, Allan Erbes, who works for Apple in engineering management.

Certainly no one wants logging going on in their back yard. But Pachera and Erbes say that more than just NIMBYism has driven them to organize their neighbors to halt, or at least mitigate, the proposed harvests. They point to the impossibly steep terrain of the Benbow parcel, criss-crossed with gullies and trenches dug out from the recent storms. According to the permit, skid trails--where logs will be dragged out--are planned for this unstable area. They point to where storm-drenched hillsides already have collapsed, and they worry that more barren ground will increase the problems. They cite an Army Corps of Engineers report that was done after the Loma Prieta quake and describes the area as highly susceptible to landslides. And they wonder about the fate of Burns Creek, a source of drinking water for a few neighbors.

Increased logging also has fed other controversies in these small communities that dot the Santa Cruz Mountains. From Villa del Monte and Summit Woods to Boulder Creek, Ben Lomond and Zayante, irate neighbors have decried the huge logging trucks rumbling along narrow roads, snarling traffic and imposing safety hazards for both commuters and schoolchildren. Although most harvest permits outline reasonable hours of operation, many who have lived near logging complain that those hours are rarely adhered to, citing the predawn racket of chainsaws and diesel trucks and the relentless pounding of helicopter rotors--which are employed to fly out logs--shattering the peace of sleeping residents.

Of the three timber harvesters contacted, only Greg Koppala responds to requests for an interview. Koppala, who owns more than 30 parcels of timberland totaling about 600 acres, is more than willing to discuss the controversies that have dogged his proposed harvest behind Villa del Monte. Koppala arranges a conference call with engineering geologist/hydrologist Tim Best, who has been hired to consult on both the Benbow and Koppala harvest permits, and the two make some interesting points while attempting to allay critics' fears.

Koppala does not consider himself an "outside interest," he explains. Although he just recently moved to Watsonville, Koppala says he has been looking to live here for years and that for him this is the final stop. Asked about using resources within the county, Koppala says that he has been in negotiation with Big Creek Lumber's sawmills for processing of the logged redwood, which Jani confirms. The timber owner says he has always made it a point to work with neighbors who might be affected by traffic and helicopter noise. But it is Best who responds to the specific concerns about the terrain. Best speaks carefully, concerned that his words not be misconstrued, beginning with these words: "This is a very, very polarized issue."

Indeed, that could explain why the other two harvesters have refused interviews. Best, a scientist who consults for parties on both sides of the issue, says that he also has been an unwilling target of the logging controversy's heated rhetoric. He reports having an M-16 pulled on him, of being called, inexplicably, a "baby killer." He has heard that sawmills are afraid of letter bombs and explosives. Although he does not admit it until the following day, he tape-records our conversation.

"There's a real concern among people about erosion occurring," Best explains. But he points to studies indicating that most of the problems associated with logging--erosion, landslides and affected watersheds--come from the poorly constructed roads and skid trails of yesteryear, built decades before the current Forest Practice Rules.

"These issues need to be corrected so this erosion will not continue to occur," Best explains. Asked if he believes that both goals can be met--his client getting the expected harvest yield, and protecting the environment from erosion or landslides--Best replies, "Absolutely. You correct the road so future water diversions will not occur."

Best then adds another thought. "Sometimes, cutting those trees is the least harmful thing you can do to the land," the geologist says. "If you can't cut the trees on the land, there's always the chance you can subdivide it."

Marking the Bark: Loggers identify trees slated for the timber truck with blue paint.

Photo by Christopher Gardner

Overcutting Edge

MORE CONTROVERSIAL, until now at least, has been the parcel that Dean and Gombos overlook, commonly known as Gamecock Canyon. Critics, including Santa Cruz County's planning department, say that some of the few remaining stands of old-growth redwoods (although the definition of "old growth" is a source of controversy and disagreement in itself) are on that property and targeted for removal. The steepness of the grade--80 percent in some areas--is a recipe for disaster, they add, increasing the possibility of erosion and landslides into Brown's Valley watershed, one of the main tributaries of Corralitos Creek and the site of a steelhead restoration project.

Environmentalists and neighbors are equally concerned about the man behind the project, Redwood Empire owner Roger Burch, one of the major players in the timber investment game.

Santa Cruz County has filed a lawsuit against Burch and the Department of Forestry because of the road that was built under an "emergency economic exemption" to allow access to the Gamecock Canyon project. County officials maintain it was a blatant misuse of emergency exemptions.

According to the county assessor's records, Burch has more than 5,000 acres of timberland in Santa Cruz County and another 2,000 in San Mateo County, besides numerous urban holdings in Santa Clara County. Burch, who lives in Morgan Hill and whose corporate offices are in downtown San Jose, also does business under the name Pacific States Industries, and he owns lumberyards and sawmills in both Cloverdale and Belmont.

Perhaps of most concern to those who have watched Burch's rise in prominence in the timber harvesting industry is his choice in foresters, a man named Peter Twight. Twight is one of only two registered professional foresters to "voluntarily relinquish" his license in the past 10 years for "a level of practice that is fairly clearly outside of the law," according to state forestry licensing spokesperson Chris Rowney. The exact nature of the charges against Twight will never be known, however, since the Department of Forestry has sealed those records.

A landowner must use the services of a licensed forester in order to apply for a timber harvest permit. The forester will prepare a rough draft, which is reviewed by the state Department of Forestry and the county and resubmitted for approval. (Virtually all are approved--in the past 10 years only 15 out of 474 applications were denied.) After the Department of Forestry signs off on the THP, the county is prevented from further inspection. And foresters, although sometimes paid a flat rate, more often charge by the amount of timber removed. Critics insist that this process is riddled with potential for abuse--as the case of Peter Twight reveals.

Twight is a genial man, and he agrees to sit down and tell his story over a cup of coffee. Like Best, he is leery of the media. A small tape recorder nestles discreetly in Twight's shirt pocket, but he insists it is not taping when I ask him about it. He believes he was a good forester, but he became the target of a political vendetta--by CDF, by the county, by other foresters. Twight admits he cut corners, but when he was called on the carpet, he decided to investigate the THPs filed by other foresters and says he found instances far worse.

Twight says he doesn't know why he was singled out, but rather than fight the charges, he agreed to relinquish his license in 1993. There is nothing in the Department of Forestry statutes to prevent Twight from taking the exam to get another license, which he did in 1995.

One of Twight's violations--overcutting--came about while he was working for his largest client, Pelican Timber, owned by well-known Palo Alto­based developer Chop Keenan. Keenan filed his share of controversial harvest permits, of which at least two were appealed. To this day, Twight insists he was merely trying to help Keenan "get his investment back." He strongly denies overcutting, but admits he pushed the limits "as far as legally and morally possible." As Pelican Timber's harvest was making its way to redwood decks in California, it was Twight who took the fall.

Listening to Twight talk about his past, his love for nature (he was once very involved in the Sierra Club) and his hopes for the future, one can't help but wonder if the forester was indeed set up to be drop-kicked by the system--and if it could happen to him again. Since CDF will not reveal who lodged the complaints against Twight, it's impossible to know whether he was singled out.

But there is something chilling in the scenario of another extremely large timber interest relying on this forester with a checkered past. If there are problems in the logging job, it's not hard to imagine who will pay the price. One thing is for certain: It will not be Redwood Empire.

Froggy Weather

THE UNSTOPPABLE Peter Twight is back in business and perhaps has learned his lesson. But some of his answers about the Gamecock harvest project might raise a few eyebrows.

The Gamecock file contains a letter from CDF's local biologist, Bradley Valentine, to his boss, deputy chief Tom Osipowich, listing some recommendations for minimizing environmental impacts. Leading the list was Valentine's recommendation to not operate during the winter period because of threats to the red-legged frog habitat in the rainy season. But Twight's client, Redwood Empire, began felling trees in early January--during one of the wettest winters on record.

Twight explains that Redwood Empire had a winter harvest permit anyway. "But," he explains, "we started dropping early to smoke out the opposition." And they did. Within two days Dean, Gombos and other neighbors barricaded Redwood Empire's access to the harvest site, claiming that the portion of Summit Road used by the logging trucks was private property. Within weeks Redwood Empire had a restraining order against the neighbors, known as the Summit Road Association.

As to the concerns about old-growth redwoods, Twight discounts that as more political in-fighting. "Dave Hope [resource planner for Santa Cruz County] was fine with the harvest permit until the appeal was filed," Twight recalls. "Then he made up some problems to satisfy the political pressure." Reached by phone, Hope responds: "Peter Twight is laboring under the misconception that if a timber harvest plan meets forest practice standards, that all environmental concerns are met."

Twight also tells another anecdote which may validate the fears of those who question just how effective a watchdog agency the forestry department is. After reviewing the timber permit, concerned homeowner Dean wrote a letter to the California Department of Forestry's Osipowich, outlining her concerns about various points. Twight says Osipowich turned the letter over to Nancy Drinkard, division chief in Felton's regional office, and that Drinkard turned around and gave it back to Peter Twight to write a response.

Although Drinkard would not return repeated phone calls to verify this, Osipowich's supervisor, assistant deputy director Dean Lucke, explains that this seemingly cozy round robin "is a normal process." He adds, "We often ask for clarification from the person who submitted the plan. We don't know the answer to everything someone asks." But, Lucke states, "we take full responsibility for making a decision on a plan."

Dean says the 34-page response was thorough, yet the appearance of foxes guarding the henhouse can only fuel critics' fears.

Road Blocks

MOST CRITICS OF timber practices in the Santa Cruz Mountains say they do not want to stop logging. But there are things they do want: more local control and stricter guidelines--or, failing those two measures, enforcement of existing guidelines.

Recently, freshman Assembly representative Fred Keeley (D-Santa Cruz) introduced legislation which would give city and county officials more veto power over timber harvests.

But many environmentalists want to see the loopholes plugged and the guidelines revamped to better support sustainable logging practices. Citizens for Responsible Forest Management's Herbert points to the current system, which allows 60 percent of the largest trees to be taken every 10 years. "It doesn't take a genius to figure out that after the third time, you won't have any big trees left," she says. "It's a staged clearcut."

Since neither local control nor stricter ordinances seem to be in the Santa Cruz Mountains' near future, the answer may be in the third choice: concerned neighbors organizing to see that existing guidelines are followed.

Dean and Gombos make no bones about it: They plain don't want Redwood Empire logging in this neck of the woods. The couple, who own a gardening service, know they do not have the financial resources for a protracted battle with Roger Burch. But their efforts have thrown the unwelcome glare of publicity on Redwood Empire and just how they intend to log.

Although Villa del Monte residents Pachera and Erbes admit their first reaction to the logging notices from Benbow and Koppala was depression, that quickly changed to action. Within two weeks they had contacted more than 200 neighbors--going door to door, writing and phoning--to invite them to a community meeting. More than 130 showed up, as well as representatives from the media, Keeley's office, Santa Cruz Supervisor Jan Beautz's office, the Sierra Club, and Citizens for Responsible Forest Management.

Adopting the name Summit Watershed Protection League, the organization brainstormed ways to block the proposed harvests. With the help of Los Gatos High School students, community donations and sales of T-shirts and bumper stickers, the league ponied up $3,000 in three weeks.

Like Erbes and Pachera, many of the concerned neighbors are high-powered professionals--business leaders, public relations directors and lawyers. Although Pachera, like Dean, admits that she has little hope of actually stopping the logging, she believes community pressure can make the timber interests mitigate their damage to the environment and disruption to the neighborhood.

As an example, she points to the Benbow pre-harvest review, a scheduled walk-through of the property that is normally limited to the forester, a representative from the county, and a representative from the state forestry department. Yet because of the publicity generated by the league, the walkthrough included specialists from the Fish and Game department, the Mines and Geology department and a representative from supervisor Beautz's office. As a result, the timber harvest permit was withdrawn, with plans to resubmit after changes were made.

"If we didn't organize," Pachera states, "I guarantee you that none of those other departments would have been on hand to inspect."

Cutting Remarks

TREE MURDERERS. TREE huggers. M-16s and letter bombs. Geologist Best is right. Logging, particularly in Santa Cruz County, is a polarized issue. Both sides, emotionally charged, seem to be generating more heat than light.

Assumptions, charges and counter-charges are flying faster than chainsaws, clouding a complex problem with double-talk and secrecy on one side and misty-eyed romanticism on the other.

Although the logging industry bears closer scrutiny, Best thinks that some local environmentalists should consider the long-range problems of shoving timber harvests out of town. He points to forests in other parts of the world that have no environmental protections. "I don't like to see huge clearcuts in Siberia that will never grow back. Or Chile," he says. "But one of the fears I have is that by not dealing responsibly with logging here, we're forcing timber interests to go elsewhere."

For the geologist, there is a common bumper sticker that both sides would do well to consider: Think globally, act locally.

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From the March 20-26, 1997 issue of Metro Santa Cruz

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