Sunday, July 10, 2005

SPI Exemption Harvest, Sugar Pine Point

A couple weeks ago Catherine O'Riley and I visited the historic Big Granite Trail, south of Cisco Grove, to examine damage to the trail from logging, which had taken place in the summer of 2004.

We found that the trail had been seriously damaged, obliterated in places, from bulldozer yarding of logs, in Section 9, T16N R13E. This settled the issue of "who done it," as Section 9 is one of the odd-numbered "railroad" sections acquired by Sierra Pacific Industries (SPI). Another lumber company, CHY, has a Timber Harvest Plan under consideration right now. SPI, as it turned out, was operating on over 2000 acres spread across several sections in the area, under a "10% Exemption" harvest plan, approved by Jeff Dowling of the California Department of Forestry (CDF).

A "10% Exemption" harvest is not subject to public review or comment. It allows land owners to harvest up to 10% of the standing timber; in this case, quote, "Harvesting dead, dying or diseased trees of any size in amounts less than 10 per cent of the average volume per acre, where timber operations will meet the conditions misted in 14 CCR 1038(b)."

A little to the south of this Section 9 is Section 17, where the historic Sugar Pine Point Trail had been obliterated by an earlier SPI harvest, some ten or fifteen years ago. A portion of this fine old trail had escaped complete destruction, and friends of mine and I had worked on keeping it open and passable. It leads, not to Sugar Pine Point itself, but to a magical forest of gigantic trees in Tahoe National Forest (TNF) Section 20, contiguous to Section 17 on the south. This section was designated the Sugar Pine Point Research Natural Area by TNF a few years ago. The magical forest is on mainly gentle slopes, bounded by steep cliffs, and old maps label it Sugar Pine Flat. There are springs, bear wallows, orchids, Goshawk nests, incredible vista points, and many trees up to six feet in diameter, or even larger.

Yesterday I packed my chainsaw into the Subaru and with my son Greg, made the 26-mile drive up I-80 to Yuba Gap, Lake Valley, Huysink Lake, and Pelham Flat. I had noticed that the main Forest Road 38, south of the Big Granite Trail, was blocked by fallen trees.

Hence the chainsaw.

The fallen trees proved to be less of an issue than the water bars SPI bulldozers had cut into Forest Road 38, last August. With many a scary scraping noise the Subie crossed one water bar after another, until, half a mile south of lovely Pelham Flat (CHY property, about to be logged--again), where a pond and wet meadow attract much wildlife, we met a water bar too high and too deep even for the mighty little Subie. So we set out on foot. We were just leaving the TNF portion of Section 8 and crossing into SPI Section 17. A mile to the south we would reach Sugar Pine Flat and the ancient forest.

Immediately upon entering Section 17, we saw much bulldozing. For, despite what on paper seems a minor timber harvest, a tremendous amount of bulldozing had occurred. Giant slash piles were heaped up, ten and twenty feet high. New log decks seemed to have been built, old log decks expanded. Skid trails everywhere. So it went until we reached a certain pass in the south center of Section 17, on the Sugar Pine Point ridge (which divides Big Valley on the west from Little Granite Creek on the east), where the almost undamaged portion of the historic trail can be used.

Although a slash pile had been bulldozed directly over the trail, it was easily crossed, and we found that the fine old trail had escaped any significant new damage. We only had to throw some logging slash off the trail here and there, and where it was cut by a road, a little pick-and-shovel work would render it reasonably passable again.

We visited the ancient forest and the bear wallow, photographed flowers--many of Leichtlin's Mariposa Tulip were in bloom, along with blue penstemons and many other species--and visited one of the prehistoric occupation sites, dating to the Martis Complex people of 1500-4500 years ago. We also wandered out east to some clifftops with fine views of Cherry Point and Snow Mountain. Squaw Peak was also visible, at the head of the Middle Fork of the American, to the southeast.

Breezy, and cooler than normal, there were scarcely any mosquitos.

After a time we retreated back up the trail and through the mile of mild devastation in Section 17. On the drive out, I noted that SPI had opened up the road from Pelham Flat down into Big Valley, through TNF lands in Section 8, presumably to access SPI Section 7. The construction of this road, and the previous SPI harvest in Section 7, had already obliterated the historic Big Valley Trail, from Pelham Flat to Monumental Ridge.

I have asked TNF for years to seek to acquire these exact sections from SPI: that is, sections 7, 9, and 17; and to try to acquire CHY lands in Section 8 and elsewhere, nearby. This area is a fine patch of Placer County high country, semi-high, anyway, with the ridges running up to and over 7000 feet, and a complex of old trails. Many a meadow and many a pond and tarn are in the area.

In fact, I have hiked around in that area for years counting chickens before hatching, imagining that TNF would soon purchase these SPI and CHY lands, and that the last of the logging had already taken place.

As usual, I was exactly wrong.

On July 12, CDF's Inspector Jeff Dowling and SPI's Carl Bystry, along with a CDF archeologist, and a contract archeologist named John Betts, will visit the area to examine the damage to the Big Granite Trail. Betts used to work for CDF and is sympathetic to the old historic trails. I called him a week ago and was not encouraged by what I heard. Betts said that I should not expect much, if anything, to result from the July 12th inspection. He said that any progress in protecting old trails would take place in small increments. I mailed Betts a map I prepared showing the exact locations of the worst of the recent damage on the Big Granite Trail, with many annotations and labels.

Betts suggested that Carl Bystry in particular, and SPI generally, will not take kindly to complaints about damage to trails on SPI lands.

And I know, from past experience with CDF's Jeff Dowling, that I am a despicable tree-hugger who, without any good reason, throws monkey wrenches into the great and important work of cutting trees down.

Nevertheless, Betts will be a voice of reason and, after all, as I wrote a couple of weeks ago, ten people with shovels and chainsaws and rakes and mattocks ought to be able to whip the worst parts of the Big Granite Trail back into shape, in a day or two or five.

John Betts has done important work in protecting the ancient petroglyphs of the northern Sierra from timber harvest operations. Usually, that "protection" means tying some flagging around a petroglyph site, so that bulldozers do not grind directly over the rocks and glyphs. But it counts for something, and has made a difference.

I don't know what to do about the CHY Timber Harvest Plan. I should make a field trip and look at the many and far-flung parcels of land involved, amounting to about 1200 acres. Then I could address comments to CDF.

More as events warrant.

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