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Timber firms chafe at rules

Costly state laws are shutting down the industry, officials say.

By Tom Knudson - Bee Staff Writer

Published Thursday, May 8, 2003

This story follows The Bee's 20-page special report, "State of Denial," published on April 27.

California timber companies are shutting down, moving out of state and even out of the United States because of the high cost of complying with environmental regulations in California, timber executives told state regulators Wednesday.

Yet while they struggle to stay in business, the executives told the California Board of Forestry and Fire Protection that the state continues to consume 9 to 10 billion board feet of wood a year -- 80 percent of it from other states and nations.

"If you stand on the main tracks of the (Union Pacific) or Burlington Northern in the Sacramento Valley, every day -- twice a day -- you'll see great long trains of Canadian lumber coming down" into California, said Dan Tomascheski, a vice president at Sierra Pacific Industries, the state's largest timber company.

Citing the recent special report in The Bee, "State of Denial," which pinpointed the conflict between California's conservation of its own resources and consumption of products from elsewhere, Tomascheski expressed concern about existing laws and regulations as well as a suite of new ones being considered by the forestry board and state Legislature.

"What we're doing is exporting demand elsewhere," Tomascheski said. "It's really economic imperialism. It's imperialism without the occupying army, but it's still imperialism."

The timber executives appeared before a regular meeting of the forestry board to speak about the state of the industry. They focused on a package of proposed legislation that includes bills by a number of prominent lawmakers.

One, championed by Senate President John Burton, would require logging companies to comply with Regional Water Quality Control Board plans. "We can't continue to allow out-of-control logging to destroy water quality," Burton said in a news release.

Other bills would impose a new fee on wood products -- to help pay state regulatory costs and restore logged land -- and require more analyses of the cumulative impacts of logging.

The bills are supported by a number of environmental groups, such as Sierra Club California and Defenders of Wildlife.

"Uncontrolled logging is turning California's forests into a disaster area," Burton said.

Timber executives presented a much different picture to the forestry board Wednesday.

"California leads the nation in protecting the environment and protecting our forest resources," said David Bischel, president of the California Forestry Association, which represents major timber firms.

"We grow 170 percent more than we harvest," he said. "Ninety-seven percent of our state's old growth has already been preserved in public ownership."

Bischel said the cumulative impact of the proposed bills, atop state and federal regulations of the past 15 years to protect spotted owls, water quality and other resources, could be disastrous.

"It's not outside the realm of possibility that we won't have a forest industry in the state in 10 years," Bischel said.

Since 1989, 77 lumber mills and wood processing plants in California have closed and more than 20,000 jobs have been lost.

Today, the industry employs 110,000 people -- 4 percent of the state's manufacturing jobs -- and generates a payroll of $3.4 billion. But the regulatory environment is literally exporting jobs and economic opportunity to other states and nations.

Tomascheski told the board that 35 to 40 percent of the wood used here comes from Canada. "The Canadians are probably our fiercest competitors," he said.

About two-thirds of logging in Canada is carried out in old-growth forests, which are largely off-limits in California. And up to 90 percent of Canadian logging involves clear-cutting -- the controversial practice of mowing down large stands of forests.

In California, Tomascheski's company, Sierra Pacific, has come under fire for clear-cutting in the Sierra Nevada. At the meeting, he defended the company's logging practices.

Today, about 80 percent of all wood sold in California "is imported from areas outside the state that have far fewer environmental protections" than California, Bischell said.

Some California companies are responding to regulatory challenge in a dramatic fashion -- moving operations to states such as Oregon and Washington. And one, Soper-Wheeler Co. in Yuba County's Strawberry Valley, recently purchased 35,000 acres in another country: New Zealand.

One of the state's oldest and best-known logging companies, Soper-Wheeler owns more than 100,000 acres across nine California counties. Its president, James Holmes, told the forestry board that the decision to leave California was tough.

"We love our lands and we have invested millions of dollars in making them better," he said. "But at the same time, we are not stupid (in) continuing to plow dollars into land where returns are so doubtful."

For the most part, the board listened passively. Later, Chairman Stan Dixon said that the testimony "will provoke further discussion" but that he was uncertain whether it would result in easing regulations. The topic, Dixon said, is controversial.

"There are sectors out there who feel the regulatory process has not gone far enough to protect public resources," he said.

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