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Measure urges agencies to buy California lumber

State enforces strict forest rules but imports most of its wood, sponsor says.

By Tom Knudson - Bee Staff Writer

Published Friday, September 3, 2004

California's legacy of protecting forests at home while consuming wood products from afar is exporting the environmental pain of logging to other states and nations, according to a bill awaiting the governor's signature.

Assemblyman Dario Frommer, D-Los Angeles, is behind the proposed law that encourages state agencies to purchase more wood grown in California - and less from places where forests are felled in ways not tolerated in this state.

"Our forest industry is operating under some of the toughest environmental guidelines in the world," Frommer said. Yet California "imports 70 percent of our lumber from places that do not follow those strict guidelines."

Frommer's bill, AB2994, which cleared the Assembly and Senate with strong bipartisan support, was inspired by a 2003 series of articles in The Bee - called "State of Denial" - which linked California's consumption of wood and oil to environmental degradation in Canada and South America.

On Monday, the bill was sent to Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, who has enthusiastically embraced the state's "Buy California" campaign for farm products. A spokeswoman for the governor, Terri Carbaugh, declined to comment on whether Schwarzenegger intends to sign the lumber bill.

"I would certainly say it's a step in the right direction," said Bill Libby, a professor emeritus of forestry at the University of California, Berkeley, who lectures and consults on global forest issues.

"Wood grown in California is going to be better grown than almost anywhere else," Libby said.

While Frommer's bill has attracted no press attention, others have followed it closely - from Sierra Club California to the New Zealand Forest Industries Council, the Simpson Timber Company in Eureka to the Forest Products Association of Canada in Ottawa.

Its backers include the state's timber industry and the California Chamber of Commerce. Sierra Club California, which once opposed the bill, is now neutral. Canadians, New Zealanders and Chileans don't care for it.

But the most surprising resistance is in-house: the California Department of General Services, which buys supplies for the state.

"This bill would take the state's procurement efforts in the opposite direction of the general economic trends for free and open trade in a global economy," said Doug Hoffner, the department's assistant director for legislation in a letter to Frommer last month.

Scott Edelen, spokesman for the department, said he didn't know how much wood the state purchases, but that it's not much. Typically, contractors working for the state buy wood. They are not affected by the bill.

"This is a modest step," Frommer acknowledged. "But I hope it will lead to other things. We in California often lead the way on environmental issues."

Frommer - the majority leader in the Assembly - also said his bill "would be something of an (economic) shot in the arm" for California. "And it recognizes the industry's precarious situation."

The past fifteen years have been tough ones for California timber companies. With more land set aside to protect wildlife, water quality and recreation, jobs have evaporated. Since 1989, the volume of timber harvested in California has fallen by more than half, to around 2 billion board-feet, and 78 mills have closed.

Yet California consumes roughly 8 billion board-feet of lumber a year - about 70 percent of it logged outside the state.

"California ought to be putting California wood products first," said David Bischel, president of the California Forestry Association. "This is an opportunity for the state to take a lead position, to say: 'We produce timber in an environmentally sustainable manner and we want to support our industry.'"

Libby, the Berkeley professor emeritus, said the Frommer bill would also help state timber firms be more competitive, since currently California wood tends to be more expensive than wood from other sources.

California's regulations tend to ensure its forests are better managed, he said. "But those regulations also put local producers at a disadvantage. To give them some advantage back may be a good idea."

Not surprisingly, Frommer's bill drew harsh reviews from foreign timber officials who withdrew their official opposition once a controversial passage, describing Canadian, New Zealand and Chilean forest practices, was omitted from the bill.

"Canada is not destroying its forest resource," wrote Avrim Lazar, president of the Forest Products Association of Canada in a letter to Frommer. "On the contrary, it is seen as a model for sustainable forest management."

Frommer remains skeptical. "It's kind of the Wild West out there," he said, referring to Canadian logging, noting that two-thirds of it occurs in old-growth stands and "there is a lot of clear-cutting."

If signed by the governor, Frommer's bill would direct state agencies to give preference to buying California-grown lumber only when it is competitive in price and quality. It does not apply to paper or manufactured wood products, such as plywood.

Environmentalists, while not enthusiastic about the bill, see some upsides to it.

"Forestry in California continues to degrade water quality and drive species toward extinction. It's not a perfect system," said Paul Mason, forestry representative for Sierra Club California.

"But there are clearly bigger issues in other places. So philosophically, buying from within the state makes sense."

About the Writer

The Bee's Tom Knudson can be reached at (530) 582-5336 or


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