California rule protects oldest of old-growth

The Sacramento Bee

SACRAMENTO, Calif. — California’s redwoods and other big trees that predate the 19th century no longer can be felled on private land without a state-approved environmental review.

On a 7-1 vote, the state Board of Forestry adopted the new rule over the objection of environmentalists, who called it minuscule protection, and of timber interests that viewed it as costly and burdensome, especially for small landowners.

State officials said the measure is designed to tighten a "loophole" in state forestry regulations that exempts certain logging operations from environmental review.

Under the new rule, timber owners seeking to fell old-growth trees must hire a state-registered forester to prepare an report assessing the trees’ wildlife and ecological value.

Although scientists say "old growth" cannot be precisely defined, the Forestry Board nonetheless did so for the first time for regulatory purposes.

Trees that are no longer exempt from timber harvest plans are those that "existed before 1800 A.D." and measure at least 48 inches in diameter at the stump, 60 inches if they are redwoods.

The old behemoths generally have broken crowns, large cavities and thick limbs preferred by certain nesting birds, such as the north coast marbled murrelet.

State Resources Secretary Mary Nichols emphasized that the rule is not an outright logging ban, but rather an check against logging ecologically valuable trees.

"All we are hoping to do is make sure that people don’t take advantage of a loophole," Nichols said after the vote.

Agency spokesman Louis Blumberg said too many old-growth trees are being logged under exemptions, such as those for removing dead or diseased trees considered safety hazards or to maintain clearance for power lines.

In 1999, for example, he said, timber owners asserting the exemption logged at least 5.4 million board-feet of trees that were more than a century old — enough to frame about 1,000 average-sized houses, state forestry officials said.

In a taped press announcement, Gov. Gray Davis said the action "would provide the strongest protections for California’s old-growth trees in the history of our state."

Representatives of environmental and timber interests alike said the governor’s characterization was overblown and spurred speculation that Davis was attempting to fend off a brewing statewide ballot initiative that would impose an outright ban on logging old-growth trees.

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