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December 6-12, 2006

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Kevin Flynn of Neighbors Against Irresponsible Logging

Photograph by Felipe Buitrago
Nail biter: Kevin Flynn, a member of Neighbors Against Irresponsible Logging, says herbicide used by the San Jose Water Company in the Los Gatos Creek watershed is killing protected wildlife.

A Leg Up on Loggers

Mountain residents find an endangered species could decide their battle against Los Gatos Creek logging plan

By Vrinda Normand

SANTA CRUZ Mountain residents have tried everything they could think of to keep logging out of the Los Gatos Creek watershed.

When the San Jose Water Company announced a plan last year to raze 1,000 acres on the watershed, nearby community members formed NAIL (Neighbors Against Irresponsible Logging), and hammered home how tree harvesting would increase the risk of fire in their backyard forest and rattle windows in their peaceful Silicon Valley suburb.

More recently, they even got former Vice President Al Gore—hot off the buzz around his hip eco-flick An Inconvenient Truth—to sign their petition after he saw a virtual fly-over of the proposed logging zone. The computerized 3-D map, created by Google whiz Rebecca Moore, shows tree-felling operations encroaching only hundreds of yards from schools, churches and homes.

But the San Jose Water Company and its partner Big Creek Lumber maintain that logging will be good for the forest. They point out that timber trucks and helicopters will only be around for a few months every two years. Under NAIL's scrutiny, they've had to resubmit their NTMP (timber harvest plan) to the California Department of Forestry—but still believe they can get it approved.

Don't count on it. Because after all of this back and forth about noise, fire safety and water quality, it's likely to be a nonhuman neighbor that proves to be NAIL's most powerful weapon.

In October, the Center for Biological Diversity reached a settlement with the United States Environmental Protection Agency after a federal court found the EPA guilty of violating the Endangered Species Act by approving pesticides without considering how they might impact the red-legged frog. The settlement prohibits the use of 66 chemicals in red-legged frog habitats around California.

The Los Gatos watershed area that's slotted for logging also happens to be a red-legged frog habitat, as documented in San Jose Water's timber harvest plan. This creates a few extra land-use obstacles that neighborhood activists haven't hesitated to pounce on.

For one, the lawsuit may mean that San Jose Water can no longer use herbicides to control weeds on its property, a practice that NAIL members have criticized for being potentially dangerous to aquatic species and humans. The privately owned company feeds off the Los Gatos Creek to provide drinking water for over 100,000 people in the South Bay.

Glyphosate, the active ingredient in Roundup (a weed killer manufactured by Monsanto), is one of the chemicals limited by the EPA lawsuit. San Francisco State University professor Carlos Davidson says studies have shown that red-legged frogs die at higher rates in areas downwind of pesticide use. In fact, this phenomenon is part of a global decline of amphibians that environmentalists believe is partly linked to pesticide chemicals found in water sources.

Even Monsanto's product label warns against applying the herbicide directly to water, where it is more likely to come into contact with aquatic animals. It also cautions against using it in areas adjacent to known habitats of threatened or endangered species.

San Jose Water sprayed 600 gallons of a 2 percent Roundup solution on its land this year. Andrew Gere, director of Operations and Water Quality, says his company only applied the herbicide in the dry summer months, away from water. According to Monsanto, Glyphosate breaks down quickly when it adheres to soil particles. Gere cites a scientific study that found Roundup posed little risk to aquatic animals when it was only applied on land.

Metro asked to see the study he referred to, and he directed us to a secondhand summary of a 2000 journal article published by Monsanto on its website.

NAIL member Kevin Flynn points to another Roundup study conducted last year by scientists at the University of Pittsburgh, funded by the National Science Foundation, which found that typical land application of the herbicide killed 98 percent of tadpoles and 79 percent of frogs within one day.

Despite the company's assurances that it uses Roundup appropriately, opponents have their doubts. During a pre-harvest inspection of the watershed in September, David Hope, a senior environmental scientist for the Regional Water Quality Control Board, noticed signs of herbicide on surface water. He says he saw dead weeds—that had obviously been sprayed—lying on a stream that ran along a roadside ditch. The stream drains into the nearby Los Gatos Creek.

San Jose Water's Gere told Metro that water wasn't present during spraying.

But Hope laughs at this response. "Yeah, right," he says. "No doubt there was water when they sprayed. It was a very consistent stream. They [San Jose Water] have guidelines against that."

NAIL members see this misstep as another example of poor land stewardship by San Jose Water. Gere says the neighborhood opponents are making a mountain out of a molehill. "NAIL would have you believe that we're spraying this stuff willy-nilly in the water," he says. "This is really about opposition to the NTMP. They're throwing darts at the credibility of our company. It's nothing more than that."

Frogs in Hot Water

One assertion no one would argue with is that this frog has been through a lot.

During the Gold Rush, San Franciscans considered them a delicacy, consuming about 80,000 every year. In 1865, the scarlet-tinged critters caught Mark Twain's attention. He featured them in his story, "The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County."

Unfortunately, they couldn't stay ahead of hungry humans while their habitats were being destroyed by mining operations.

By the time the largest native frog in the Western United States earned a spot on the Endangered Species List, nearly 90 percent of them had been wiped out from California forests and wetlands. That was 1996. A decade later, only small groups live scattered throughout coastal ranges.

Over the course of those 10 years, the red-legged frog has become a strategy for environmentalists, a thorn in the side of Bay Area builders and the basis for lawsuits over sprawling developments.

So why should we care about this plump critter that can grow as large as three human fists? Davidson of SFSU says frogs eat huge numbers of insects that could be dangerous to humans and agriculture. They're also considered important indicators for changing environmental conditions.

Plus, says Davidson, "They're beautiful animals. It would be really sad to lose them."

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