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Photograph by Traci Hukill
River keeper: Big Creek Lumber's Bud McCrary points out trees growing near a tributary of Scotts Creek during an October 2008 tour with a reporter.

Big Fish

Big Creek Lumber seeks special consideration in next round of state salmon protection rules.

By Alastair Bland

THERE WAS surely a time when the last thing an aspiring forester ever thought he or she would be concerned with was protecting fish. Now, it seems, tiptoeing around salmon and steelhead is as natural a part of life for loggers in Northern California as poison oak, and the laws that guard the state's threatened salmonids might be about to get tougher. On June 24, the Board of Forestry is holding a public hearing in Sacramento in which a newly drafted package of proposed forestry regulations designed largely to safeguard spawning steelhead and coho salmon will be reviewed by the board. Later this summer, a voting panel of nine will decide whether to adopt all, part or none of the regulations.

As might be expected, conservationists eager to see the Central Coast's coho salmon dodge extinction for a while longer would like to see the package enacted as law with as little leniency toward the timber industry as possible. Some local lumber lovers, meanwhile, feel that the restrictions and protective measures go beyond what's necessary to maintain ideal temperatures and flows in the waterways of the Santa Cruz Mountains, where several coho salmon still spawn.

The proposed regulations, developed in a collaborative effort between state agencies, private stakeholders and scientists over the past three years and now undergoing a 45-day public review and comment period, represent a refinement of the current salmonid conservation laws in California forestry, which were enacted in 2000 and expire on Jan. 1, 2010. The proposed package adds protective measures even for streams that do not contain fish, for these still play a role in watershed health.

At particular issue locally is Scott Creek, in which steelhead and salmon spawn in the watershed's upper reaches and its tributaries. The proposed regulations would tighten the rules on how much canopy cover to leave over the streams (shade is crucial in maintaining the cool temperatures required by salmon and steelhead larvae). The rules would also require that tree harvesters leave enough streamside trees to assure that large woody debris--like fallen branches and logs--finds its way into the creeks. Such objects, when lodged in the current, produce pools and other flow conditions beneficial to migrating salmonids.

But reps with Big Creek Lumber, a cutting company based in Davenport that specializes in selectively cutting second-growth redwoods, say that their own voluntary measures to maintain watershed health on Scott Creek and the San Lorenzo River have more than satisfied the needs of steelhead and salmon for years. The company claims that the proposed regulations will interfere with an already adequate harvest management program. Currently, Big Creek Lumber follows a policy of leaving 50 percent "canopy retention" near streams to keep the sun from warming the cool waters. By stiff contrast, the proposed laws would require 85 percent canopy retention within 75 feet of fish-bearing streams.

To demonstrate the effectiveness of these practices, Big Creek Lumber, with the help of various researchers, has collected water temperature data in recent years from logging sites prior to and after tree removal. "Our pre-harvest and post-harvest data has shown no temperature increases after logging, meaning that 50 percent [canopy retention] is enough to maintain fish populations," says Nadia Hamey, a registered professional forester with Big Creek Lumber.

Scientists vouch for the company. Sean Hayes, a Santa Cruz salmonids biologist with NOAA, says that, in Big Creek Lumber's case, self-regulation works.

"The only stream in the area with any lingering population of coho salmon is the stream owned by a logging company," notes Hayes, who says that 200 to 400 steelhead and between 30 and 40 cohos spawn in Scott Creek each year.

Matt Dias, a forester with Big Creek Lumber, says the proposed set of regulations is too general in its statewide approach. In February he and Hamey submitted a letter to the Department of Fish and Game and to the Department of Forestry and Fire Protection requesting that a new package of regulations be written specifically for the southern subdistrict, a forest management region that includes the Santa Cruz Mountains. Forest ecosystems, explains Dias, differ from region to region and should therefore be managed on a regional basis.

"We'd like to see a specific rule set developed which recognizes that [Big Creek Lumber] already protects salmonids," Dias says.

But Big Creek Lumber's set of stream temperature data was not peer-reviewed after it was collected. Moreover, Big Creek Lumber never submitted its conclusions for review by the team of scientists that analyzed more than 4,000 pages of scientific documents during the writing of the proposed package of forestry rules. Instead, Big Creek Lumber simply submitted its numbers and graphs into the pile of comments to be reviewed directly by the Board of Forestry after the public comment period ends on June 22.

Sustainability consultant Mike Liquori helped to lead the scientific literature review process before he and 12 others produced a 200-page synopsis for the Board of Forestry's enjoyment. Liquori never saw Big Creek Lumber's data, but he speculates that it did not meet certain standard criteria required of such material. Peer review is a big one, and the fact that Big Creek's data received no such scrutiny substantially diminishes its credibility.

"There's a big difference between rigorously collected data and sloppily collected data," notes Liquori.

Jodi Friediani, a Santa Cruz forestry consultant and environmentalist who has submitted her own opinions during the Board of Forestry's 45-day comment period, believes Big Creek Lumber must be subjected to the rules in the proposed set of regulations.

"If you've got a species that's on the verge of going extinct, then it's my opinion that you want to take all precautions possible."   

The drafting of the new regulations is a public process, but Friediani charges that Big Creek Lumber has edged out of public view in recent negotiations with the state's lawmakers. This spring, Big Creek hosted several officials with the Department of Fish and Game on a tour of the company's land holdings in the upper San Lorenzo Creek drainage, and Friediani wasn't invited. When she expressed interest in seeing the watershed, the loggers told her to stay home.

"This kind of field trip in a process that's been open and transparent for two years should have been open to the public," says Friediani. "My concern is that they'll take people of importance out to the sites that look good and keep them away from the sites that look bad."

After the public meeting in Sacramento on June 24, the Board of Forestry will decide how to implement the proposed regulations. If the Board gives consideration to the logging industry's suggestions--such as Big Creek Lumber's request for a separate set of forestry rules in the southern subdistrict--the process might not be wrapped up until September. The new rules will take effect Jan. 1, 2010.  

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