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AB 47 Loma Prietan Op Ed

Monday, April 07, 2003

by Assemblyman Joe Simitian

Early in Ronald Reagan’s political career, he was credited with such environmental witticisms as, “You know, a tree is a tree—how many more do you need to look at?” And of the redwoods, he once said, “I saw them; there is nothing beautiful about them, just that they are a little higher than the others.”

Reagan’s remarks—even at the time—were considered rhetorically excessive; but happily, they do illustrate how far we’ve come in expanding the boundaries of environmental debate. Today, of course, we know that we have to think about more than a single tree, or even a single forest. The dialogue now encompasses a much greater sphere. It’s about the cumulative impact that results from individual actions.

Certainly, it comes as no great surprise that cumulative impact matters. Changes that happen over time and across terrain can have a lasting impact on our environment. Individual actions today—whether it be a timber cut, a dam construction, a wetlands development, or a mining practice—will affect our air, our water, our forests, as well as species and subspecies, tomorrow, and for many tomorrows to come.

What is surprising, however, is that in California we still lack a consistent approach to the consideration of cumulative impacts when we evaluate and approve timber harvest plans (THPs). We don’t fully consider the impact that one plan may have on another plan—even though they may be implemented on opposite sides of the same stream over the course of a few short months. And where has this led us?

Since 1985, more than 1.4 million acres of private forestland have been clearcut, according to the California Department of Forestry.  That’s the equivalent of nearly 10 acres per hour, 365 days per year for 17 years. Because we consider each individual THP individually, we look over our shoulder and we see that, acre by acre, we’ve lost our forests.

And it’s not just our forests we’ve lost. In the process, we also impaired our water quality, destroyed whole habitats, increased our flood risk, and contaminated drinking water for rural communities.

Of course we didn’t mean to do this. It was simply the unintended consequence of failing to consider the cumulative impact of seemingly “isolated” activities.  Isn’t it about time we took a look at the big picture? I think it is.

To help us look at that big picture, I’ve introduced Assembly Bill 47, to bring our State timber harvest policy into the modern era. The measure is supported by the Sierra Club, Planning and Conservation League, National Resources Defense Council, Defenders of Wildlife, and California Native Plant Society. It’s a common sense look at the cumulative impact of the Timber Harvest Plans granted by the Department of Forestry. It’s more or less the same approach the State has used for decades to understand and manage the impacts of development in our built environment. 

Specifically, the bill requires the Department of Forestry to look at the cumulative impacts of a proposed timber harvest plan before it approves that cut. It also requires more stringent reporting requirements within a timber harvest plan.

Under AB 47, timber harvest plans must include information on adverse effects of past and present projects on the planning watershed, on riparian forest conditions, and on sensitive species, and on any mitigation required for those impacts. The plan must also provide information on all pesticide applications approved for treatment within the planning watershed in the past 5 years. The result of AB 47 will be healthier forests and thriving ecosystems that can be managed for the long-term good of the community—and the planet.

Too often we look at nature with utilitarian eyes. But nature does not serve us only in board feet. There is value in having clean water to drink. There is also an intrinsic value in nature that humans have often overlooked in their rush to exploit our natural resources. And there’s value in preserving a watershed—of keeping up water quality and soil.

Managing forests for the long-term benefit of the environment will ensure that industry thrives in the long term as well. Forests, and all that they contain, are our collective assets. We can squander them today, or we can ensure that they will be there, providing all kinds of economic and health dividends, for a long time to come.

But we can do all this only if we consider the cumulative impacts of individual timber harvest plans over time and space. In this instance, ignorance isn’t bliss, and what we don’t know can hurt us.

They’re called eco-systems for a reason, and it’s time we started to think about our forests in a long-term and systemic way. If AB 47 becomes law, we can do just that.

(Assemblymember Joe Simitian, D-Palo Alto, is the author of AB 47. He wrote the bill in consultation with the Loma Prieta Chapter’s Forest Protection Committee.)