Sierra loggers get the ax

  • MEASURING SUCCESS: Cecil Wetsel sizes up a tree in the Sierra Nevada

    photo courtesy Cecil Wetsel

EL DORADO HILLS, Calif. - It is not yet 10 a.m. on a rainy spring morning, and a computer in the Wetsel-Oviatt sawmill already reads 797 trees turned into boards since dawn. Sawdust fills the air as workers wearing ear plugs roll white fir through an assembly line of blades.

This mill in the hills of El Dorado County runs eight hours a day, producing enough lumber in a year to build more than 2,500 homes. Seventy percent of that wood usually comes from national forests.

Cecil Wetsel, a burly, bearded 57-year-old, owns and runs the company his grandfather started in 1939. He says he can't survive without federal timber: "We don't own enough land to support our business."

Wetsel and other mill operators and loggers have seen the U.S. Forest Service offer less and less timber for harvest over the last decade. The first jolt came in 1993, when the Forest Service implemented a temporary plan to protect spotted owls. It shrank the annual timber cut in the Sierra Nevada by more than two-thirds. Foreign competitors took up the slack, flooding the market with much cheaper logs from Canada, Chile and New Zealand.

Meanwhile, environmentalists battled both in and out of court against clear-cut forests, eroded streambeds and fire danger. "Past logging practices have unquestionably contributed to the fire situation in the Sierra Nevada," says Jay Watson of the Wilderness Society. "Typically, a commercial timber harvest is just that: All (small) trees and woody debris gets left behind."

Ironically, the worst blow to loggers is now coming from the Forest Service, which for decades has funded itself with timber sales. The new Sierra Nevada Framework will cut the average annual harvest to around 100 million board-feet, half of the current cut, and only a 10th of what the cut was in 1990.

"It's devastating," says Phil Aune, who left a long career with the Forest Service to join the California Forestry Association. "We'll be closing mills all up and down the Sierra Nevada as a result."

"Only one or two firms in the Sierra Nevada have enough of their own land to have a reasonable probability of surviving," echoes former regional forester Ron Stewart.

Cecil Wetsel says the agency is making a big mistake. "Using fire as the number-one tool is not going to work," he warns. Many people agree with him, from residents of rural communities to retired Forest Service employees and members of the locally based Quincy Library Group. Relying on fire to prevent bigger fires, they say, adds to air pollution and can create catastrophic blazes that escape "controlled" burns.

More mechanical thinning is needed to keep the forests healthy and fire-resistant, critics of the Framework argue. "Anyone who's ever had a garden knows what happens if you don't thin," says Wetsel. He says a look at his land will prove his point.

A thicket vs. a forest

About an hour from the Wetsel-Oviatt mill is the gold rush town of Plymouth, where the company sold its first logs to shore up a mine. Nearby, Wetsel harvested a mixed conifer forest last year with chainsaws and a feller-buncher. His crews cut out over half the brush and trees, Wetsel says, and 20 percent of the cut wound up in the mill. The rest was chipped and spread on the forest floor.

Wetsel and I can easily walk through the trees that are left. Here and there are bits of debris and medium-size stumps. "It looks a little rough," he says, "but not bad."

On the other side of the road, dense forest covers land the company has not yet harvested. The woods are dark with crowded ponderosa pine and fir. At ground level, a tangle of stems creates a wall along the roadside that looks impossible to penetrate.

"A lot of national forest land looks like that," says Wetsel. "Imagine trying to run a fire through it."

Up the road, Wetsel-Oviatt property gives way to the boundary of the El Dorado National Forest. In a clearing lies a pile of small trees and branches as tall as a one-story building. This is material the Forest Service has thinned.

"That's what they'll end up cutting under the Framework," says Wetsel. "What am I going to do with that? They can't give it away."

The Wetsel-Oviatt mill and many others already have retooled so they can handle logs as small as six inches in diameter. Some mill owners are bitter because they say the Framework doesn't even offer enough of these trees for mills to make a profit.

The Forest Service frankly acknowledges that what they want thinned is not merchantable wood.

Under the Framework, "Timber will not be a program itself," says Tom Efert, the agency's ecosystem staff officer. "It will be a byproduct. It is a fundamental change in the way we manage the forest."

Kent Duysen, who runs Sierra Forest Products, a mill his father started over three decades ago, calls the change "a shame." He says the Framework will probably drive his family's company out of business, and "when the Forest Service realizes they need treatment, we'll be gone."

Importing disaster

If nothing else, loggers say, California needs a timber industry to meet its voracious demand for wood. Californians use 8 billion board-feet of wood a year, and 70 percent of it is now imported.

"We have the ability to produce forest products in an environmentally conscious, sustainable way," says David Bischel, president of the California Forestry Association. "We have a responsibility to provide what we consume."

Demand for wood products - which, according to the California Forest Products Commission includes alcohol, altars, boats, books, bowling pins, brooms, cellophane, cider, fences, fuel, guitars, napkins, newspapers, tent poles, tires, vacuum bags, vinegar, yardsticks and yeast - is expected to increase by 50 percent in the next 20 years.

"It's environmentally irresponsible to export our demand for natural resources to places where the environmental protections aren't as high as they are in California," says Dan Tomascheski of Sierra Pacific Industries. The company has been the Forest Service's number-one purchaser of trees. Bischel calls importing trees "the ultimate in imperialism."

But Wetsel acknowledges the legacy his industry has created, saying that it has evolved "beyond the robber barons." No longer, he says, do loggers have to high-grade and harm forests to get the wood out. These days, he believes, "We can be a tool, a part of the solution."

Copyright © 2001 HCN and Haley Nolde

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