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Old-growth Sierra junipers felled amid warming debate

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Old-growth Sierra junipers felled amid warming debate

Postby ERIC » Wed Sep 24, 2008 7:33 am

Old-growth Sierra junipers felled amid warming debate

By Tom Knudson - tknudson@sacbee.com
Last Updated 12:48 am PDT Sunday, September 21, 2008

Glenn Fair, a Lassen County fishing guide, surveys the
remains of centuries-old junipers near Bayley Reservoir in Modoc County.
Federal officials say the 300-acre cut will help restore native grasses and
wildlife -- but admit that the cutting of old trees was a mistake.
RANDY PENCH / rpench@sacbee.com

ALTURAS – Moments after he saw the centuries-old junipers on the ground, Glenn Fair felt sick to his stomach.

A 60-year-old fishing guide from rural Lassen County, Fair has nothing against thinning forests to protect them from fire and disease. But the barren, dusty swath of stumps and downed junipers logged from public land last year and the adjacent house-high pile of wood chips was not that kind of cut.

Not only were trees mowed down across nearly 300 acres, they were leveled under a banner of ecological restoration, energy independence and climate-friendly power. It was portrayed as a win-win by the federal government, which was paying for the removal to undo the legacy of poor land management.

But to Fair, burning old-growth junipers in a wood-fired power plant to battle global warming just doesn't make sense.

"These trees are our carbon collectors," he said. "It's no different than if you went into a rain forest and cut it down."

The government's so-called "stewardship project" here in rugged, remote northeast California is a lens through which to view the changing nature of forestry. No longer is managing woodlands in California just about balancing jobs and the environment. These days, carbon, climate and restoration are part of the equation.

Juggling that mix is no easy task.

"There are no simple, formulaic answers," said Laurie Wayburn, president of the Pacific Forest Trust, which manages North Coast redwoods for lumber and carbon. "Climate change is challenging us to think more quickly and deeply at the same time."

Even government officials acknowledge that the Modoc County job – designed to restore the land to its more open, range-like pre-settlement condition – was botched.

"That cut was heavier than we wanted," said Peter Hall, a forester with the U.S. Bureau of Land Management. "We're learning from our mistakes and moving on."

New plan covers 1.2 million acres

This spring, the bureau and the U.S. Forest Service announced plans to dramatically expand the scope of the cutting. According to a more than 500-page environmental impact statement, the two agencies propose to use cutting and burning to eradicate junipers across 1.2 million acres – an area more than 11,000 times larger than Arco Arena and its parking lots.

The reason for such dramatic action, they say, is to address historic land management mistakes, including heavy livestock grazing and fire suppression, that have allowed juniper woodlands to expand. That expansion has choked out grass and brush that support wildlife such as mule deer and sage grouse.

"We're all in favor of forests," said Tim Burke, manager of the Bureau of Land Management's field office in Alturas. "However, what's happening here is not natural."

Others question the wisdom of cutting so many trees on the arid Modoc plateau at a time when rising global temperatures are increasing the risk of desertification – the spread of desert-like conditions.

"Almost anywhere else in the semi-arid world, forest cover of any density is viewed as an environmental asset," said Ronald Lanner, a retired Utah State University forestry professor who lives in Placerville.

What's more, some scientists say restoring the terrain to conditions that existed during the cooler 19th century – before global warming began to push temperatures higher – might not work.

"As a generalization, you really can't go back to the way it was," said John Helms, a retired University of California, Berkeley, forestry professor and former president of the Society of American Foresters. "In restoration, one should identify what vegetation best suits the land and society today, and ... the future, rather than 100 years ago."

Even within the Forest Service, not everyone agrees with the project's premise. Connie Millar, a research scientist with the agency's Sierra Nevada Research Center, said junipers are proliferating partly because of higher temperatures.

"I do believe there is a climate aspect," she wrote in an e-mail. And if that's the case, she added, trying to weed them out will prove costly, perhaps futile. "Removal may be a defensible socially desired goal. Nonetheless, I believe that it will take increasing effort, time, money. Eventually this may become a 'paddling upstream' practice.

"I find a similar situation in Yosemite where the park service continues to remove lodgepole pine seedlings from Tuolumne Meadows as fast as they colonize," she continued. "Every time the meadow is cleared (i.e., clear-cut) of the young pines, they re-seed rapidly."

Western junipers' proud history

Junipers might bounce back for another reason, too.

"We are talking about trees that are regenerated by seeds dispersed by animals, by birds that eat the fruits and excrete the seeds and also by coyotes," said Lanner, author of "Conifers of California" and an authority on junipers.

"So as long as you have junipers around, you are going to have a source of seed. And unless you eradicate the animals, you are going to get junipers back again."

Jade-green, burlier than a sumo wrestler and 15 to 60 feet tall, western junipers thrive in the arid reaches of Nevada, eastern Oregon, northeast California and parts of the Sierra Nevada.

They are known for their hardiness and longevity – some live to be 2,000 years old. Near Carson Pass, junipers flourish "in great beauty and luxuriance," John Muir once wrote, adding:

"Two of the largest, growing at the head of Hope Valley, measured 29 feet, 3 inches and 25 feet, 6 inches in circumference, four feet from the ground. The bark is of a bright cinnamon color, beautifully braided and reticulated, flaking off in thin, lustrous ribbons that are sometimes used by Indians for tent-matting. Its fine color and odd picturesqueness always catch an artist's eye."

According to a 1996 article in the Journal of Range Management, their expansion across the region over the last century is hardly unique.

Thousands of years ago, "the range of western juniper expanded and contracted several times in response to increasingly (wet and dry) conditions," the article states. "Western juniper therefore should not be referred to as an invasive weed that is threatening natural communities."

Some see 'juniper desert'

Nonetheless, that is much the way federal officials see it. Bouncing down a gravel road in a government vehicle, Edith Asrow looked out at a stand of younger junipers and did not appreciate the verdant view.

"I see a sort of wasteland," said Asrow, an ecosystem staff officer for the Modoc National Forest. "As the junipers thicken, we lose all the grasses and flowering plants. So all you have left is one species. It's a juniper desert."

Up ahead was a stand of junipers that had been heavily cut for firewood, leaving a snarl of rust-colored branches, stumps and other woody debris.

"Seeing this to me is beautiful because we are on the path of balancing an ecosystem," Asrow said. "I look at this as my kid in braces. In other words … this is a temporary state."

Lanner scoffed at her assessment. "Junipers are part of our biodiversity, as much as sagebrush," he said.

Like all trees, they absorb carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and store it as carbon, helping combat global warming. Nationwide, forests sequester 200 to 280 million tons of carbon per year, offsetting up to 20 percent of greenhouse gas emissions.

"The wholesale removal of trees can only result in the loss of a lot of carbon sequestration capacity," Lanner said.

Federal officials disagree, saying grass and sagebrush actually store more. "For us to trade off an intellectual concept about carbon sequestration … and leave juniper trees to turn into a monoculture doesn't make any sort of prudent sense to me," Asrow said.

Such carbon quarrels are bound to become more common as California scrambles to shrink greenhouse gas emissions to 1990 levels by 2020 – as mandated by its 2006 Global Warming Solutions Act.

"For every ton of wood consumed to make power, you have at least a 1-ton net reduction in greenhouse gas emissions compared to natural gas," said Steve Brink, vice president of public resources with the California Forestry Association.

Turning wood into megawatts

Two years ago, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger signed the executive order requiring that 20 percent of renewable energy purchased by public utilities be generated by "biomass" – a catch-all term for trees, sawmill waste, construction debris and so on. Currently, California gets just 1 percent of its power – 550 megawatts – from such sources.

In a state blanketed with crowded, unhealthy forests, many say turning spindly fire-prone conifers into kilowatts makes sense.

"If we can produce domestic energy and restore an ecosystem and stabilize a local economy all at the same time, that could be a win, win, win," said Sean Curtis, a resource analyst for Modoc County.

One thing on which all sides agree is that old-growth trees should not be a part of the mix. But on the cut near Bayley Reservoir in Modoc County, they were toppled anyway.

A contract for the job, obtained through the Freedom of Information Act, states that only younger junipers were to be harvested. "Junipers containing … old-growth characteristics will not be cut," it says.

When Hall – the government forester and contract officer – toured the area this spring, he discovered that instruction had not been followed. "When cutters finished @ the project, there were no old growth left," he wrote in his project diary.

"There was a break in the communication between the contractor and the cutters," Hall told The Bee. "It's definitely a black mark on his record."

No fine was assessed because the contract had no teeth, Hall said. In fact, the government paid the contractor $76,000 to cut the area, a common practice for forest products with low economic value.

Today, Hall said, new contracts contain penalty clauses.

"We really don't want to cut any old growth juniper," he said.

Many remain skeptical, including Glenn Fair's 84-year-old father and fishing partner, Jay, who said: "If we're not careful we're going to do everything we can to get energy and just destroy the planet."
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