North Coast Loggers Face Veto

It’s not often that forestry  activists in the North Coast get good news from Sacramento, so it was a rare celebratory moment in October when then-Governor Gray Davis signed Senate Bill 810, which gives water quality control board officials the authority to block logging operations that are likely to endanger watersheds.
The statewide law, which went into effect the first of the year, will be felt most strongly on the North Coast, where  activists, regulators, and logging companies have squared off for years over the fate of forests and watersheds. Over 90 percent of the rivers and streams on the North Coast have been listed by the EPA as “imperiled” by sediment overloads, a result of logging operations that loosen soil and remove canopy cover, hastening erosion and  causing landslides.
Despite the EPA listings, the region’s water quality control board has wielded little power over the California Department of Forestry (CDF), which reviews logging proposals. As a rule, the water board reviews all major logging plans, but the CDF was free to ignore its recommendations. “In maybe 10 percent of the [logging plans] we reviewed, we would reach an impasse,” recalls Catherine Kuhlman, who directs the North Coast Regional Water Quality Control Board. In those cases, says Kuhlman, “the CDF would send us a letter saying ‘thanks for the input, but we won’t take your comment.’”
Logging lobbyists fought the bill, arguing that it would hand too much authority to water boards. But Kuhlman says the veto power “is not something we should use lightly. It’d be nice if we didn’t have to use it at all. But it does give us some leverage in the process.” In parts of California where watersheds are in better shape, the new law will have little effect. “If you’re doing good logging, you’ll never know this law exists,” says Paul Mason, a forestry lobbyist for the Sierra Club.
But if the past is any indication, water officials at the North Coast board may be making good use of SB 810. Asked how often SB 810 might be invoked, one staffer suggested a look at the board’s record of “non-concurrences,” or formal objections it has filed against timber harvest plans. In 2002, water board staff issued about 25 “non-concurs” on CDF-approved logging proposals. In all of those cases, the logging took place as planned, despite significant risk to watersheds.
One such objection was filed in response to Pacific Lumber’s logging plan for the upper Freshwater Creek area, one of the region’s most sensitive watersheds, and a key habitat for coho salmon. CDF approved the logging, which began on January 1.
Whether SB 810 is properly enforced, says Mason, depends on the “dynamics of the actual water quality control board.” In the final days of his term, Governor Davis filled several seats on the water board with logging industry insiders. Those appointments were quickly revoked by Governor Schwarzenegger, who has yet to announce his new picks.

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