Big Trees

A town that timber built is now fighting a logging company residents fear will hurt tourism

Posted: Sunday, June 18, 2000

ARNOLD, Calif. - This community grew up around logging 60 years ago, its history so entwined with timber it is building a logging museum. Now, however, residents are turning on the industry that once fed them.

They fear clear-cutting by Sierra Pacific Industries will damage their new livelihood: tourism.

A sign at the edge of town bills Arnold as the ``Gateway to the Big Trees,'' a reference to nearby Calaveras Big Tree State Park, home of giant sequoia trees. Though the sequoias are all in the park and protected, former loggers are joining self-described tree-huggers, retirees and second-home owners in Calaveras County to oppose the company's large-scale logging of other trees on land nearby.

``People come here for the trees,'' says businesswoman Erin Ross, a fifth-generation resident and the co-owner of a trendy new bistro. ``If they're not finding trees, if they're finding big open areas, they're going to go someplace else.''

What once was a blue-collar area that revolved around the local sawmill has changed dramatically over the past decade as retirees, vacation-home owners and, more recently, telecommuters have flocked here.

The town of about 3,500 people north of Yosemite National Park has no main street; in Arnold and up over Ebbetts Pass, homes, businesses and entire subdivisions are tucked back into the woods.

Tourists now double or triple the population on weekends, often stopping at the art galleries, gift shops and cafes that have sprung up along Highway 4. Tourism now accounts for a third of the area's economy, the Sierra Business Council says.

Opponents say they don't oppose selective logging or the contract loggers doing the clear-cutting. After all, logging has provided jobs in the Sierra for more than a century.


They say their fear is that clear-cutting, which temporarily removes all vegetation over 20-acre patches, will hurt the area's scenery, wildlife and possibly its drinking water.

They have pictures they say show sediment running into a stream feeding the White Pines Lake reservoir, runoff they contend could carry any herbicides used in the clear-cutting. The company and state officials say the water supply is safe.

Two clear-cuts border Big Trees State Park, while 47 others - a total of 884 acres - are scattered along Highway 4 over Ebbetts Pass.

``It's never been done that way,'' says Pat Bradley, granddaughter of Frank Blagen, who built the local sawmill in 1938. ``It's always been selective logging. Selective logging is where you go in and log, but you leave a forest behind you.''


The sawmill ran for 22 years, and the tiny neighboring towns of White Pines and Arnold grew up around it. Its antique chainsaws now sit in a temporary logging museum while a permanent museum is built near the defunct mill's original site. White Pines Lake, the reservoir residents say the clear-cutting threatens, is on the mill's former site.

Sierra Pacific says its methods will eventually produce a healthier, more productive forest ``plantation.'' It plans to clear-cut much of its 1.5 million acres in California, including about 75,000 acres in Calaveras County, over the next 100 years.

``Many people are reacting to short-term visual concerns, and the forest is a long-term investment, plain and simple,'' says Sierra Pacific forester Dave Baker.

Opponents say they will caravan to Sacramento to take their concerns to Gov. Gray Davis after they failed Thursday to convince the Calaveras County Water District to sue to try to block the clear-cutting.

The Calaveras County Board also seeks Davis' intervention. Supervisors sent him a letter two weeks ago warning that ``the ramifications to the community are tremendous. This issue has cut across all political and philosophical spectrums.''

Davis spokeswoman Hilary McLean did not respond to requests by The Associated Press for comment.

A day after the board sent its letter, 435 people packed a school gymnasium for the first community meeting of the Ebbetts Pass Forest Watch. That's more than often attend the Calaveras County frog-jumping contest celebrated by Mark Twain, jokes county Supervisor Merita Callaway.


``We're not the Old West anymore,'' Callaway says. ``Everyone wants a say in what their neighborhood looks like.''

Someone pamphleted each car at the recent middle school graduation with information on the clear-cutting. Earlier this month, dozens of residents lined Highway 4 through Arnold with protest signs, timing their message to reach part-time residents heading to their vacation homes.

Organizers are circulating petitions locally and in other areas where Sierra Pacific is making clear-cutting its primary logging method.

Opponents have also enlisted support from Assemblyman Fred Keeley, a Boulder Creek Democrat, to try to change logging rules.

California's timber harvesting regulations expire this year, and Keeley is promoting a bill that would expand public notice and require independent studies of logging's effect on waterways.

County supervisors are meeting later this month to consider drafting their own more stringent logging regulations limiting clear-cuts and the use of herbicides, as several coastal counties have. The tougher local rules would have limited legal impact unless the California Board of Forestry adopts them, however.

Dean Lucke, the California Department of Forestry's assistant deputy director for forest practices, says logging regulations are too complicated and ever-changing to be written into law as Keeley proposes.

California's Forest Practices Act lets the state regulate logging on private land in the same way building, plumbing or fire codes regulate private homes for the greater social good, Lucke says.

Anyone logging private timber must file a harvest plan that covers the cut's impact on wildlife, waterways and soil erosion. Nearly all are approved, Lucke says.

``If you make the changes we require you to make, you're going to get your permit,'' he says.

State law also requires that nearby property owners be notified, notice published in a local newspaper and the public given at least 15 days to comment. Most public comment periods last weeks or months, until the harvest plan is approved.

In Calaveras County, virtually no one objected during the comment period, which opponents say shows the public notice requirements are inadequate.

Sierra Pacific placed a notice in the local paper and notified neighboring property owners as required, but residents say the notices used language that disguised the location and the plan to clear-cut.

Sierra Pacific's Baker says the company changed its plan to avoid logging within sight of White Pines Lake, left more trees than required to blunt the visual impact there, and is leaving small clumps of trees in other clear-cut areas.

The forestry department notified everyone as required and took longer to review a plan they knew might be controversial, spokesman Louis Blumberg says. While clear-cuts aren't pretty, the department decided most of them would be hidden by fringes of trees or by curves in the highway.

Forestry's Lucke and Sierra Pacific spokesman Ed Bond blame much of the controversy on misperceptions.

Bond says clear-cuts can actually minimize the impact on the surrounding forest. Rather than selectively cutting trees throughout 200 acres, the same amount of timber can be had by clear-cutting 20 acres.

Within a few years, trees begin to grow and the clear-cut land is not as unsightly. Once logged, the land remains untouched for about 60 years, Bond says.

Such arguments fail to satisfy opponents like the more than 100 area residents at the Calaveras County Water District hearing.

``What is going to happen to Calaveras County and Ebbetts Pass if this is allowed to happen?'' Bertha Underhill asked the board. ``It is just so beautiful. Please don't let this happen to us.''

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