Capitol Alert: California tree-cutting measure raises environmentalist hackles

jwhite@sacbee.comSeptember 10, 2013 

A late-blooming bill allowing Californians to topple larger trees has pitted environmental groups against lawmakers citing the need to combat forest fires.

As things now stand, the Department of Forestry and Fire Protection must review timber plans before cutting can begin -- unless the chopping relates to specific ends such as fire prevention. Those exemptions come with guidelines stipulating that the trees can be no larger than 18 inches in diameter.

Legislators want to expand the maximum diameter to 24 inches through 2019 via legislation, introduced by Assemblymen Brian Dahle, R-Bieber, and Rich Gordon,D-Menlo Park, and co-authored by Sens. Ted Gaines, R-Rocklin, and Jim Nielsen, R-Gerber, that looks similar to a timber-harvesting bill that died in the Assembly Natural Resources Committee, its first stop, back in April.

A series of massive fires, including the ravenous Rim fire that swept across hundreds of acres of California in recent weeks, prompted the bill, according to Josh Cook, Dahle's chief of staff. He stressed that the bill creates a five-year pilot program to see if facilitating the process for harvesting larger trees would help stymie catastrophic blazes.

"With climate change we have drier years and need to adapt our practices," Cook said. "Clearly we have a problem. With the amount of structures being lost and watershed destruction, this is clearly the biggest environmental issue in the state."

Six inches may seem like a small difference, but environmentalists say the bill carries large implications for complex forest ecosystems and the habitats they contain.

"The bill would actually focus the cutting on the large, merchantable trees, which are not the trees that are the biggest part of fuel load in fire risk," said Brian Nowicki of the Center for Biological Diversity. "Large trees are the more fire-resistant trees."

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