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Three decades later, agency leaders say Cal Fire is now faithfully discharging its duties. Russ Henly, assistant secretary of Forest Resources Management for the California Natural Resources Agency, says he thinks Cal Fire staffers are "doing a very good job" of reviewing timber harvest plans. "I know they give a hard look to the cumulative impacts of logging as part of the harvesting plans."
But numerous environmental and public interest groups disagree, including representatives of the group that filed the cumulative impacts lawsuit. "The long, sad history of the Elk River is one example of how we can't rely on our state forestry agency to deal with the multiple impacts of logging," says EPIC's Rob DiPerna.
Environmentalists and commercial fisherpeople alike note that numerous river watersheds—and the life they harbor—have continued to spiral downward in the modern regulatory era. In the North Coast, coho salmon have been particularly hard-hit by the degradation of redwood forests.
A STATEWIDE CONCERN
Here in the North Bay, a controversy over timber industry damage to the Gualala River in northwestern Sonoma and southeastern Mendocino counties has been raging since 2015. First came the Dogwood plan, a 320-acre timber harvest plan filed by Gualala Redwoods Timber company (GRT). It involves tractor-logging hundreds of stately, second-growth redwoods that line the lower Gualala River, in areas spared from axes and chainsaws for a century or more.
Next was the German South plan that GRT filed last September, which looks to harvest an additional 96 acres of floodplain redwoods, in an area immediately adjacent to Dogwood, and clear-cutting 85 acres directly upslope. In September came GRT's Plum plan, which involves felling floodplain redwoods along the Gualala's north fork in Mendocino County.
According to environmentalists, these unique floodplain redwood groves serve as a thin green line against further severe damage to endangered and threatened species of salmon and trout, which feed, rear, shelter and migrate in them. Environmental groups—including Forest Unlimited, Friends of the Gualala River, and the California Native Plant Society—successfully sued to halt the Dogwood plan, though the others are going forward as of this writing. They say that Cal Fire and other agencies have failed to require rudimentary surveys of endangered and threatened plant and animals species in approving these logging proposals.
"Cal Fire is handing over the Gualala River's floodplain on a silver platter to the timber industry," says Jeanne Jackson, a nature columnist for the
Independent Coast Observer. Gualala Redwoods Timber argues that it is only cutting these forests selectively and leaving riparian buffers, in compliance with state regulations designed to protect streams.
Cal Fire's watershed protection program manager Pete Cafferata, who is involved in many of the department's activities concerning the Elk, Gualala and other rivers, says the forest practice rules have helped improve river health overall.
"Monitoring work conducted over the past 20 years has demonstrated that California's water-quality-related forest practice rules implementation rate is high," Cafferata says, "and that when properly implemented, the current [regulations] are generally effective in protecting water quality."
Others note that logging-impacted rivers and the life they harbor continue to decline in numerous areas of the state. And the worst impacts typically occur from clear-cutting. From 1997 to 2014, Cal Fire approved more than 512,000 acres of clear-cutting, or about 800 square miles, an area larger than either Napa or Marin counties.
Most of those clear-cuts were completed by Sierra Pacific Industries (SPI), the United States' second largest timber company, which owns roughly 1.8 million acres across California—nearly 2 percent of the state's land area.
Battle Creek is a 350-square-mile drainage fed by water from melting snow that drips down the western slope of Mount Lassen in northeastern California where SPI owns more than 30,000 acres. Because of the creek's ample year-round flow of cold water, state and federal wildlife managers have deemed it the most welcoming area in California for the reintroduction of endangered Sacramento River winter-run Chinook salmon, prompting the federal government to invest over $100 million in its recovery. Juvenile Chinook must have cold water to survive.
Not only has Cal Fire failed to prevent SPI's clear-cuts from severely damaging this critical watershed, critics say, but it has even attempted to prevent publication of scientific research concerning the logging's impact on Battle Creek.
In 2016, recently retired US Forest Service hydrologist Jack Lewis co-authored a research paper analyzing Battle Creek water-quality data, collected largely by the environmental group Battle Creek Alliance, and submitted it to the journal Environmental Monitoring and Assessment for peer review. It is the first-ever study to examine the cumulative impacts of SPI's logging in the Sierra Cascade region.
The journal's editor invited two professional hydrologists, including Cal Fire's Cafferata, to peer-review the study. Cafferata strongly criticized it, prompting the journal's editor to reject it. In an email to the Bohemian, Cafferata writes that "the literature suggests that" a large fire "was a more probable mechanism than logging for the [water-quality impacts] described in the paper."