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World's other forests feed state's appetite for timber

By Tom Knudson - Bee Staff Writer

Published Sunday, October 5, 2003

Thick as a phone book, a new state report on the environment cites a little-recognized danger to global forests: California.

By consuming "vast amounts of ... wood products" while increasingly protecting our own forests from logging, Californians are sharpening the pace of cutting elsewhere, including Canada, says a draft of the report "The Changing California, Forest and Range 2003 Assessment," obtained by The Bee.

The 1,400-page report by the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection is to be presented to the state Board of Forestry this week. It is the fourth in a series of periodic checkups and the first to discuss the global reach of California's wood-consumption and forest-conservation practices, a theme explored by The Bee six months ago in a series of articles, "State of Denial."

In the coming months, the board is expected to use the report to prepare a broad policy statement to guide forest management for several years. William Stewart, chief of the state's Fire and Resource Assessment Program, hopes that statement will for the first time address the imbalance between consumption and conservation.

"You can't have a rational forest policy without admitting we use wood products," Stewart said. "The more we don't produce here, the more it will come from other areas. We're just shuffling our environmental impacts somewhere else."

Traditionally, forest protection in California has focused on what happens in California. But in drawing attention to consumption, conservation and wood imports, the report highlights a national problem -- one that U.S. Forest Service Chief Dale Bosworth also cited in a speech late last month at the World Forestry Congress in Quebec City, Canada.

"We in the United States consume far more timber than we produce," Bosworth said, in a copy of his remarks provided by the Forest Service. "Over the next 50 years, we expect imports to supply a third to half of our total softwood lumber consumption."

"We're concerned about undermining the health of the world's forest ecosystems through consumption patterns that are out of balance with production," Bosworth added. "Our habits raise questions of both equity and sustainability."

Three years in the making, the "Changing California" report is sweeping in scope. Although unlikely to attract a large readership, it catalogs information vital to California's environment.

In effect, the report is a conservation report card on the 80 million or so acres of California's forests and rangelands. You name it and the report discusses it: soil erosion, water quality, forest fires, fish and wildlife, urban sprawl.

Some of the most striking figures and passages pertain not to the state of this state's woods and grasslands but to how California's consumptive lifestyle conflicts with its conservation spirit.

Here are a few highlights:

* California is the nation's largest user of wood and paper, devouring about 10 billion board feet a year -- nearly 15 percent of the national total. "As consumers, Californians use vast amounts of ... wood products," the report said.

* At the same time, its passion for protecting the environment has throttled the flow of logs from its own forests. Lumber production in California is at its lowest level in two decades. Since 1988, the amount of timber harvested has fallen 60 percent. Nationally, the volume of wood logged from federal lands is at its lowest level in 50 years.

* As less timber is cut, more flows to California from Oregon, the southeastern United States, Canada and even Europe. Today, the state "imports approximately three-quarters of its wood and paper products," the report said.

* As fewer trees fall in California, jobs and sawmills disappear. In heavily wooded Siskiyou and Del Norte counties, a quarter of residents' income is public assistance, including welfare -- compared with 11 percent in urban areas.

Although it points out such trends, the draft document does not discuss them in detail. At least one outside expert who was asked to review the report believes it should have dug deeper.

"It seems that one of the challenges California faces is, 'Where is the wood going to come from?' Or put another way, to what extent does California export its problems to other producing areas?" wrote Richard Haynes, a program manager with the U.S. Forest Service Pacific Northwest Research Station in Portland, Ore.

"We haven't had to balance Canadian (forest) conditions against our consumption," Haynes told The Bee. "As a society, we've said "We don't care.' "

Usually, it's rural states' lawmakers who speak most loudly about wood-supply and forest-industry matters. But today, the global reach of California's wood consumption has caught the attention of a Bay Area assemblyman -- John Dutra, D-Fremont.

"California isn't solving (forestry) problems nationally and internationally. It's creating a problem nationally and internationally," Dutra said. "What we're doing is devastating forests in Canada, where they are clear-cutting in a very irresponsible way."

The Bee's April series reported that in Canada, up to 90 percent of timber is logged through clear-cutting, in which entire stands of forest are harvested. And cutting is expanding in the boreal -- a vast northern forest that plays an important role in helping protect the planet from global warming.

During the 1990s, Canadian lumber imports to the United States rose by 6.2 billion board feet, while the harvest of wood from federal forests in California, Oregon and Washington dropped 4.8 billion board feet.

Because of the interstate and international nature of wood markets, Dutra said the proper venue for reform is not the state's Capitol, but Washington, D.C.

"Obviously, it involves Congress," he said.

"The appetite for wood in California is going to increase," he said. "Well-managed, environmentally sensitive logging should be permitted -- and is needed. And it's not sacrilegious to say that."

The fate of Canada's forests was in the spotlight at last month's World Forestry Congress, attended by 4,000 people from around the world. Environmentalists there handed out a report calling for a moratorium on logging in the most biologically sensitive portions of the boreal.

"Canada's forests have reached a crisis point," said the report by Greenpeace, the Natural Resources Defense Council and California-based Forest Ethics. "Previously untouched ancient forests are being opened to clear cutting. More and more wildlife are added to endangered species list every year."

Don Sullivan, a Canadian conservationist who attended the meeting, said U.S. consumption of boreal wood is harming aboriginal people, too. Members of one native community featured in The Bee series -- the Grassy Narrows, Ontario, Ojibwa band -- protested at the meeting.

"The not-in-my-back-yard approach isn't working," said Sullivan, executive director of the Boreal Forest Network in Winnipeg. "Conservation has to be more than that."

The forestry congress took no formal action on the boreal but did issue a statement saying that global forests, if well-managed, "have enormous potential to make an invaluable contribution to the imperatives of this era: for environmental security, poverty alleviation, social justice (and) enhancement of human well-being ... ."

Nor did Forest Service Chief Bosworth specifically mention U.S. imports of Canadian wood in his speech there. Instead, he sounded a broader theme, calling U.S. wood consumption "unsustainable" and a "challenge" to global forest sustainability.

"We've got to use wood products more efficiently," he said. "Consumption must be in balance with production. 'Out of sight, out of mind' -- that's the danger of a system that separates consumption of forest products in one place from production in another."

About the Writer

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


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