Eyes off the Van Duzen?
By John Driscoll
CARLOTTA -- While fighting to get timber plans in Freshwater and Elk River permitted by state water quality officials, the Pacific Lumber Co. has been coasting through the process in the Van Duzen watershed.
The North Coast Regional Water Quality Control Board's staff is grinding to get watershedwide permits in the Humboldt Bay area watersheds wrapped up, and admits it has no time to deal with the Van Duzen. While the California Department of Forestry has set limits in Freshwater and Elk at 500 and 600 acres per year, Palco saw its plans to log on 5,000 acres in the Van Duzen approved in 2004.
The Pacific Lumber Co. says new plans it wants permitted are as critical as those in Freshwater and Elk, without which the company says it will go bankrupt.
In material submitted to the water board in January, Palco CEO Robert Manne predicted the same outcome if 10 logging plans pending approval in the Van Duzen and Larabee Creek weren't permitted quickly: All three of the company's mills would close in early February, laying off 450 people.
Palco owns 53 percent of the 71-square-mile area under consideration, with the rest occupied mainly by ranches and timberland where grazing and logging are common. The highly erosive watershed still suffers from the effects of the 1955 and 1964 floods, and massive slides grace the watershed.
In its watershed analysis of the area, Palco wrote that of the tens of thousands of tons of sediment that washes into the watershed each year 66 percent was natural, 33 percent was from road surface erosion and 1 percent from actual logging. A 1999 study by Pacific Watershed Associates found that more than a third of the sediment that enters the lower watershed comes from logging operations, including roads.
Residents in the Van Duzen watershed are becoming more vocal about Palco's intense logging activity. In this area, Palco-contracted Columbia Helicopter logging choppers are a day-in, day-out experience.
"Welcome to the helicopter zone," said Sal Steinberg, who until recently was one of few bringing concerns to CDF or the water board.
Palco has been submitting its timber harvest plans under another process called Mini Option A, after its Sustained Yield Plan was thrown out in California Superior Court in 2003.
Steinberg said without the Sustained Yield Plan or rigorous water quality review or harvest limit like in Freshwater and Elk, no one's keeping track of the effects.
Palco Vice President of Resources Brian Anderson said the idea that the company is making up for the slowdown on Freshwater and Elk River harvest plans doesn't wash. The process, he said, is too slow to allow that.
"Technically it's infeasible to get a rapid turnaround to make up for a short-term surprise of a few THP's not being realized in Freshwater and Elk," Anderson said.
He said the company is focused on the Van Duzen to achieve a five-year predictable harvest -- important to its customers -- rather than jumping around the company's ownership.
Anderson disagreed with Steinberg's assertion that the logging's overall effects are flying under the radar. He said CDF and the water board are monitoring the level of activity on its entire ownership and in individual watersheds.
But regional water board Executive Officer Katherine Kuhlman said her staff is swamped with Freshwater and Elk River issue.
CDF Division Chief Ron Pape said that no one has been able to demonstrate the logging has caused problems. He said measures in Palco's federal Habitat Conservation Plan including upgrading roads and using buffer zones appears to offset impacts "from any given operation."
CDF personnel review plans before and after logging, he said, although CDF staff is crimped.
"While there may not be a formal report," Pape said, "people are looking at this stuff."
Steinberg's Friends of the Van Duzen River is suing CDF for allegedly breaching the California Environmental Quality Act by approving plans under Mini Option A. But Steinberg insists he's not trying to hurt Palco, just trying to slow things down.
"It's their land," he said. "Just make it last and I don't think anyone would be complaining."
Palco has cut on about 10,000 of its 25,000 acres in the area since 1998. Recently submitted plans call for cutting trees as young as 35 years in a style called variable retention, in which some trees are left standing.
Pape said the company and others are moving to a shorter rotation, noting that Palco's new sawmill unveiled last summer handles smaller logs efficiently.
"The day of the big log is gone," Pape said.
Other residents are concerned about how Palco's planned logging might worsen flooding problems on their property. Some plans butt up against a strip of homes on State Route 36.
Guy Wilson, a former logger who's lived in his house since 1945, said water already comes down the slope behind his house due to a bogus culvert. It's a condition he expects to get worse when the cutting is done.
"Nobody cares about getting the water down there on us," Wilson said.
Some are in precarious situations. Kathleen Teague, a special education teacher at Fortuna High School, has lived at the base of a landslide since she built her house on Fox Camp Road in 1990. She recently removed tons of gravel from the base of the slide to protect the house.
Teague admits her house has been in danger, but said CDF never fully reviewed Palco's logging plans above her property to determine if they might make it worse. At the top of the slide is a landing Palco built to accommodate trucks.
When CDF came out after Teague alerted the agency, she said, she was told she'd have to sue since the plan had already been approved.
"They screwed up," Teague said, "but at the same time, they can't make any changes."
By the end of next week, Kuhlman hopes to have draft permits for Palco's operations in Freshwater and Elk, at which point some plans may be cleared for logging. It won't be until April before the water board can shift its focus to the Van Duzen, where a similar permitting scheme is planned, Kuhlman said.
"All parties hope it will be easier than Elk River
and Freshwater," Kuhlman said.