TUOLUMNE COUNTY — Ramon Guzman wields a big, loud piece of logging equipment for his delicate task in the woods.
The machine grabs a small tree in an overcrowded stand, shears it off near the ground, and lays it down amid the timber that will be left standing.
Guzman's work provides raw material for building homes, but he takes pride in something more — the forest he leaves behind.
"You open the trees so the sun is going to the ground," he said on a July morning deep in the Stanislaus National Forest. "The trees you leave get more air and more water and start growing better."
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Logging advocates say skills such as Guzman's are vital to forest health in Tuolumne County, and to its economy. They fear what will happen after this month's closure of the Sierra Pacific Industries sawmill at Standard, once the hub of a booming timber industry.
"There's an awful lot of people that work in the woods, like I do, that rely on that sawmill," said Dave Hansen, a private forester working the same logging project as Guzman, just west of Cherry Lake.
The Standard closure, expected to happen Friday, will put 146 mill employees out of work. About that many contract loggers and truckers also will lose their jobs, industry people said.
The loss of these paychecks — more than $20 an hour in many cases — will hit hard in a county struggling with the recession.
The decline in logging could mean increased fuel for wildfires, which could leave barren soil that degrades rivers supplying farms and cities in the Northern San Joaquin Valley. The blazes could burn forested spots where valley residents camp, hike and fish — and where they might like to retire.
"We've got a major, major problem on our hands," said industry forester Chris Conrad at a forum in Sonora in June. "We're in the middle of the destruction of the American forest of the West."
Many environmentalists agree that logging could help restore forests that have grown unnaturally dense, though they continue to question some of the industry's practices.
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"It is absolutely good to still have a vibrant timber industry in the Sierra Nevada, and it should be done in a way that protects the environment," said Steve Frisch, president of the Sierra Business Council, a Truckee-based group that seeks to balance economic and ecological needs.
The Standard equipment will be left in place for a possible reopening if the economy and log supply improve, said Mark Luster, community relations manager for Sierra Pacific. The company is making no promises.
California's logging and sawmill work force has been declining for two decades, in part because of environmental rules, and in part because of automation. The depressed demand in housing over the past couple of years has accelerated the trend.
The Standard mill employs less than a third of the people it had in the early 1990s. Sierra Pacific also has a 145-employee plant in Chinese Camp that makes cedar fencing and will stay open.
Sales increased this decade
Through most of the 20th century, the county had several mills that processed its massive old-growth trees and the second growth that followed.
Timber sales from the national forest averaged 133 million board-feet a year from 1960 to 1990. (A board-foot is a piece of wood 1 foot square and 1 inch thick; a typical home has 10,000 board-feet.)
The volume dropped to less than 20 million board-feet a year by 2000, as the U.S. Forest Service boosted protections for wildlife, mainly in the older, denser stands where spotted owls nest. The sales have since crept back to more than 30 million annually in an effort to reduce fuel for fires.
Sierra Pacific, which is based near Redding and is the largest private landowner in California, has relied increasingly on its own land to feed its 12 sawmills. In announcing the Standard closure, the company said even this source is shrinking because of tough state rules on logging.
Silencing the saws will hinder the effort to thin wildfire fuels from forests that have grown too dense, the industry contends.
Some of the trees used to be cleared out by frequent, gentle fires sparked by lightning or American Indians. Over the past century, forest managers have tried to snuff most fires, a practice that has let the fuel build up like kindling from the ground to the tallest treetops. Now, when a blaze starts, it can roar across tens of thousands of acres, killing trees of all sizes.
"When you have 250 to 1,000 trees per acre in a forest that historically had 50 to 70 trees per acre, you have to expect it to burn more intensely," said Thomas Bonnicksen, a prominent forester, at the Sonora forum.
Conservationists: Don't blame us
A natural Sierra forest is a mosaic of old, middle-aged and young trees in small patches, along with open areas, said Bonnicksen, a professor emeritus at Texas A&M University.
"We need serious forestry," he said, "and that means using those wood products and actually managing the forest."
Conservation groups are unfairly accused of blocking federal timber sales, said John Buckley, executive director of the Central Sierra Environmental Resource Center in Twain Harte.
He cited a recent offering of 17 million board-feet near Strawberry, one of the biggest in recent years. It drew no bids because some of the logs would have had to be removed by helicopter rather than ground equipment, an expensive practice aimed at protecting steep slopes, he said.
Buckley said he supports annual Stanislaus sales of close to 40 million board-feet. He said the industry can get by with smaller trees, rather than those with trunk diameters of 30 or more inches, a standard for spotted owl protection.
"The Forest Service can easily provide millions of trees of 29.9 inches or smaller and meet the demand for sawlogs without cutting larger trees," Buckley said.
What is not needed, he said, is the clear-cutting that Sierra Pacific has been doing in the past few years on part of its own land.
Craig Thomas, executive director of a Sacramento-based environmental group called Sierra Forest Legacy, said Sierra Pacific is wrong to blame logging rules for mill closures in Standard and elsewhere.
"It's the housing market," he said. "It's the crash. SPI was one of the major beneficiaries of building all those subprime houses. It was the lumber on their land that did it, and now that party's over."
Mike Albrecht, whose 15-person logging company is doing the work near Cherry Lake, agreed that poor lumber demand is partly to blame for the industry's troubles.
But Albrecht, a forester, said federal timber sales need to increase to 50 million to 75 million board-feet to deal with the fire fuel over the long term.
The Cherry Lake project, in its fifth and final year, involves thinning some of the plantations that followed the Granite fire of 1973. It is not affected by the mill closure — the logs are trucked to a Tulare County plant with help from a federal grant aimed at keeping people there employed — but Albrecht said the Standard mill is needed for future forest work.
Loss of experienced loggers 'tragic'
Jim Serra, who monitors the plantation thinning for the Forest Service, said the mill closure will mean the loss of experienced loggers who know how to treat the land.
"It would be tragic, because if we ever got it back, we would have to train people," said Serra, a timber sale administrator for the forest's Groveland Ranger District.
Guzman, who operates a tree-shearing machine known as a feller-buncher, is one of those experienced people. The Forest Service briefs him on how each stand should look, then trusts him to choose just which trees to cut.
Another machine, known as a log skidder, drags a few of the downed trees at a time to a central point. This machine, like others on the site, is designed to tread lightly on the ground, avoiding the soil damage that careless logging can cause.
Next comes the delimber, which knocks the branches off the trunks with the ease of a chef peeling a carrot. This machine then slices the trunks into lengths that fit a logging truck.
Guzman, who lives in the old lumber town of Tuolumne, has done this work for nearly 20 years. He is putting hope in Sierra Pacific's statement that it might reopen the Standard mill at some point.
"If the mill kept going and the Forest Service put more sales together, I think it would be all right, but it's hard to say what's happening right now," he said.
'We still want to improve habitat'
The national forest staff continues to plan timber sales in case the mill reopens, said Deb Romberger, who oversees the sales as resource management program area leader.
The logging is part of an effort that involves intentional burning of low-lying fuel and shredding of some of the smaller debris.
"The idea is to continue growing bigger trees," Romberger said. "We still want to improve habitat because every year across the Sierra Nevada, we lose habitat to wildfire."
Mark Plummer, an independent logger based in Sonora, disagrees with the Forest Service's emphasis on taking small trees.
"A managed forest will harvest all types of trees so you have a multi-aged, varied forest," he said.
Plummer spent $1,000 on a new chain saw early this year because he figured he would have work in some of the bigger timber. He has not found it, and he is considering a career change after 25 years in the woods.
"The future for timber fallers, who expect to make a good living in exchange for the risk and skill they provide, is poor," he said.
Plummer said he would miss logging, which pays well and allows winters off for people willing to work long, grimy hours from spring to fall.
"You go out, you work hard, you give what you believe is great work, and it's something you can take real pride in," he said.
Plummer was among the dozens of industry people who attended the forum in June, sponsored by the Tuolumne County Alliance for Resources and Environment.
It ended with a plea to federal officials to increase the timber sales so people can work.
"We are in a crisis in our area, and we can't sit on our hands and do nothing," said Conrad, the industry forester. "It has hit home here. We have seen a lot of people get damaged."
Bee staff writer John Holland can be reached at email@example.com or 578-2385.