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State Stumps Santa Cruz

County government officials have virtually no say on timber harvesting within our borders

By Kelly Luker

TREASURED BY CONSERVATIONISTS for its environmental leanings, Santa Cruz County may seem safe from the chainsaws that have threatened to decimate the ancient trees of the Northwest. However, residents may not sleep so well when they learn that local government has virtually no say about logging in its jurisdiction.

Although this is common knowledge to those who follow the green movement closely, most locals have been lulled into a false sense of security about who's watching their redwoods. Although Santa Cruz was one of five counties that still governed logging practices in its jurisdiction until 1983, the state took back control with the passage of Senate Bill 856. The policymaking arm of forestry practices is the California Board of Forestry, while the California Department of Forestry serves as the enforcement branch.

Although, for example, the Santa Cruz Board of Supervisors may object and file appeals against logging projects, the Board of Forestry makes the final call. Its nine members are appointed by the governor, and it is they who set timber harvest policy and review appealed timber harvest permits, among many other duties. A brief biography submitted by each board member includes political party affiliation, reflecting the choices of the last two Republican governors.

Ostensibly, five members represent the general public, three represent the forest products (logging) industry and one speaks for the range-livestock industry. Yet Chairman Robert J. Kerstiens provides one baffling example of what can be passed off as a representative of the public. Originally appointed by George Deukmejian in 1989 to represent the public interest, Kerstiens was reappointed by Pete Wilson in 1992 to represent the range-livestock industry.

The Board of Forestry has another branch, the Professional Forester's Examining Committee, that investigates problems with Registered Professional Foresters. According to Chris Rowney, the examining committee's executive officer, there are about 1,500 licensed foresters in the state of California. In 1994, only two had their licenses revoked, and in 1995 no such actions were taken.

It is this stacked deck that frustrates local county workers, as well as environmental activists. "They're set up to coddle the [forestry] industry," county planning's Dave Hope says of the Board of Forestry. Adds Betsy Herbert, a spokesperson for Citizens for Responsible Forest Management, "Nobody would debate that the Board of Forestry votes with the industry."

Although the county may appeal a timber harvest permit, the Board of Forestry makes the final decision on all THPs. A good example of this was the Valentine plan, a highly controversial timber harvest in Boulder Creek. Although its files in the Felton office contain about an inch-thick sheaf of protest letters and the project was ultimately appealed by the county Board of Supervisors to state forestry in Sacramento, the harvest was approved.

While it is the forester's responsibility to develop the THP, it is the California Department of Forestry's job to review and approve the THP. "The Department of Forestry is not accountable to the public," Herbert complains. "They are not under control of the local government. They are under pressure to approve plans in an expedient manner."

A review of the last several years' THP records in state forestry's Felton office seems to bear her out. Of 988 THPs that have been filed since 1975, 63 have been withdrawn and only 22 have been denied.

The Department of Forestry--which does the final inspection for a pending THP--also is responsible for noting violations on the logging tract. Unfortunately, those state regulations are similar to the tax code--unwieldy, confusing, complicated and, in many instances, vague. The Golitzin-Diesel tract provided abundant examples of this. The Forest Practice Rule says that no more than 25 percent of the canopy covering a creek can be removed. But how does one measure 25 percent?

Ultimately, it is state forestry's call, which in Golitzin-Diesel's case was vigorously contested by county planning. State forestry measured the logging road by the width of the gravel laid down--12 feet--and found little problem. Yet the county wanted to measure from where the earth was gouged from the side of the mountain to the edge of the cliff, clearly a fairer assessment of environmental risk. What the county found--information later verified by Metro Santa Cruz--was a road frequently as wide as 14 feet, often 20 feet, and, at one hairpin turn, 78 feet wide.

"The way this whole process is set up," Hope laments, "is that nothing positive is going to happen until we change governors."

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From the May 2-8, 1996 issue of Metro Santa Cruz

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