Half a hemisphere separates the headwaters of the Amazon River and the frostbitten northern latitudes of Canada.

But the two landscapes have one thing in common.

You can see it along a muddy rain-forest road in Ecuador, in the silver glint of a pipeline snaking through the grass. North of Edmonton, Alberta, a different sight catches your eye: an old-growth forest of spruce, pine and aspen shredded by a dusty maze of logging roads.

That oil pipeline and those logging roads are linked, via quiet rivers of commerce, to the largest concentration of consumers in North America, to a culture that proudly protects its own coastline and forests from exploitation while using more gasoline, wood and paper than any other state in America: California.

With 34 million people and the world's fifth-largest economy, California has long consumed more than it produces. But today, its passion for protecting natural resources at home while importing them in record quantities from afar is backfiring on the world's environment.

It is exporting the pain of producing natural resources - polluted water, pipeline accidents, piecemeal forests and human conflicts - to the far corners of the planet, to places out of sight and out of mind. California is the state of denial.

"There is a disconnect going on," said William Libby, a professor emeritus of forestry at the University of California, Berkeley, who lectures and consults on forest issues around the globe. "We consume like mad. And we preserve like mad."

Since the days of John Muir - the California naturalist whose writings and ramblings helped kindle the conservation movement just over a century ago - concern for the environment has been a cornerstone of California life.

And seldom has conservation touched California so deeply as during the past 10 years. Since 1992, environmental rules have eliminated or sharply reduced logging on 10 million acres of national forest land in the state - an area 13 times larger than Yosemite National Park. In the Mojave and Great Basin deserts, 3.5 million acres were declared wilderness in 1994 - an expanse half again the size of Yellowstone National Park.

And while that conservation legacy will enrich Californians - and California ecosystems - for generations to come, its reach also extends far beyond the Golden State.

Libby was one of the first to notice, while on sabbatical in New Zealand in 1992. As the volume of wood cut from California forests dropped due to regulations to protect spotted owls, the demand for logs in New Zealand soared - making loggers there happy.

"Prices were insane," Libby said. "The New Zealanders wanted me to get them a dead spotted owl so they could stuff it, put it in the lobby and genuflect to it."

He soon discovered logging was on the rise in other places, too, and has since published several articles that link preservation of California forests with species extinctions elsewhere.

"We Californians are really not very good conservationists - we're very good preservationists," he said. "Conservation means you use resources well and responsibly. Preservation means you are rich enough to set aside things you want and buy them from someone else."

A half-century ago, California was self-sufficient in wood. Today, the state imports 80 percent of what it uses. Follow some of that wood back to its source and you find yourself in the northern boreal forest, where Canada allows trees to be cut in ways not permitted in California.

On average, nine of every 10 acres logged in Canada are clear-cut - the contentious practice of leveling large patches of the forest. And more than two-thirds of Canadian logging takes place in stands that have never been nicked by a chain saw - virgin forests that in California would be regarded as sanctuaries.

"Many Americans believe Canada is this incredible wilderness, but it's not true," said Richard Thomas, an Edmonton consultant and author of a 1998 provincial study critical of logging practices in Alberta. "We are very much like a Third World country when it comes to our resources. We just let other countries have at it."

Six thousand miles south, a wave of development for another resource crucial to California - crude oil - is inflicting similarly serious wounds across Ecuador's Amazon. Rain forests that were home to kaleidoscopic displays of plant and animal life in the 1970s and '80s now are showcases of pollution and poverty.

Every day, an average of 235,000 barrels of oil is pumped from the region for export to world markets. The largest portion - 65,000 to 85,000 barrels a day - is shipped to refineries in Los Angeles and San Francisco.

The discovery of more reserves in the Amazon is setting off a new wave of controversy and threatening the cultural survival of semi-nomadic rain-forest tribes. Still, the country's new president, Lucio Gutiérrez, assured financiers in New York earlier this year that he supports more drilling because Ecuador is deeply in debt and needs foreign investment.

"The historical challenges for my government are very clear," Gutiérrez said at the time.

Related Story:
Homes a model of ecological design

California's hunger for the planet's natural resources need not stir up trouble, if a system were in place to prevent it. You can find such a safeguard in the storm-tossed North Pacific, where Canadian fishermen, working under a federal plan that gives them an ownership stake in fish, are harvesting millions of pounds of rockfish every year for California without hurting the environment.

"Everybody is quite conscientious," said Jim Harris, a Canadian trawler. "We've got a fishery that is going to be here for the duration."

The clash of conservation and consumption in California may be large, but it is not unique in this country.

"We're the largest consuming nation basically of everything," said James Bowyer, a professor at the University of Minnesota who specializes in conservation policy and natural resource consumption.

"Yet we find every reason in the world why we shouldn't mine steel, why we shouldn't drill for oil," Bowyer said. "It's ironic because we are transferring the impacts to someplace else. And then we are telling ourselves what we are doing is good for the environment.

"And not only are we transferring those impacts, we are magnifying them by turning to nations that don't have the stringent environmental controls that we do."

No government agency maps the global impact of California consumers. But a small Oakland think tank, Redefining Progress, has assembled estimates of the mountain of resources, from wood to fossil fuel, fresh water to seafood, consumed by 146 nations - and some California counties - a yardstick it calls an "ecological footprint."

The United States, a world leader in the conservation of natural resources, has a larger footprint (24 acres per person) than all nations except the United Arab Emirates (with 25 acres). Do the math and you find America's 291 million people draw upon a 7 billion-acre chunk of the planet - an area roughly three times the size of the United States.

An assessment for Marin County - the pricey, conservation-minded San Francisco suburb - found citizens there eat, drink, spend and drive their way through even more of the planet's natural wealth: 27 acres per person a year - the largest ecological footprint ever calculated.

The group's footprints have attracted attention from scientists and policy-makers around the world. And although some people criticize the methods as imprecise, none denies the basic premise.

"The idea is right," said Libby, the forestry professor.

Last year, Libby found some Californians are not eager to hear about the global consequences of conservation and consumption.

At a conference on Sierra Nevada forest management, held in Nevada City, Libby asked the 250 people attending how many of them lived in houses made of wood.

Almost everyone did. Then he asked how many had houses built with alternatives such as used tires and straw bales. Only two or three people responded.

A few moments later, Libby recalled, he asked, "How many people are comfortable with species going extinct somewhere else because we're not going to cut any wood on the Tahoe National Forest?'"

At that point, Libby said, "Somebody in the audience shouted: 'We don't like your question.' "

On to Chapter One

Respond to this story: denial@sacbee.com

Send a letter to the editor: viewpoints@sacbee.com

E-mail this story

* To read more from this chapter, JavaScript is required.
   Please enable it in your browser's preferences.


Respond to this story Text Version | Back to Top

More from Sacbee:   News | Sports | Business | Politics | Opinion | Entertainment | Lifestyle | Travel | Women

[ The Sacramento Bee Web sites ]

Sacbee.com | SacTicket.com | Sacramento.com

Copyright The Sacramento Bee