Future of sustainable forestry threatened
Last October, 120 workers lost their jobs at Wetsel-Oviatt Inc., a third-generation family-owned business that fell victim to California’s poor climate for forestry companies.
Escalating regulatory and workers’ compensation costs and imported wood killed a company that had proudly furnished wood products to Californians for 64 years.
It planted 4 million seedlings over 30 years to ensure the forest’s future survival. The founder’s son even won a state “Agriculturist of the Year” award in 2002.
None of that, however, could stand against the increasing costs that drove the business into the red and, finally, to close.
Unfortunately, the 120 Wetsel-Oviatt workers joined thousands of others who have lost jobs in California’s forestry industry.
According to a California Forest Products Commission report earlier last year, more than 15,000 jobs have been lost as family-owned businesses shrink under the pressure of regulation and costs. Today, just 35 sawmills remain in a state that had more than 100 only 15 years ago.
This decline is man-made and most onerous in California. Demand for wood products continues to increase here in California and nationally, and many forestry companies in other states and countries thrive.
But California’s forestry industry is not thriving. In fact, it’s fighting to survive in the face of state and federal policies that continually make it more difficult to practice responsible forestry in California.
Last year, the company I lead, the Soper-Wheeler Company, celebrated its 100th year in California. I say “celebrate” with reservation because every day I see how difficult it is for California forest landowners to operate and compete against imports from other countries, and even other states.
California forestry companies are burdened with an unbelievable onslaught of environmental regulation that, while well intentioned, has created unnecessary micromanaging of tree harvesting on private land.
Today, before our company can harvest trees on our property, we must file timber harvest plans that can each run up to 500 pages long. The industry pays an average of more than $40,000 to prepare a plan Ð all for the privilege of harvesting trees we’ve grown for 40, 50 or 60 years.
In Oregon, a similar harvest can be done much more cheaply, often after filing just a two-page plan while providing thoughtful protections for the environment.
We are subjected to this regulation despite the fact that forestry companies have a vested interest in ensuring that our land is managed in an environmentally sensitive way, protecting our water, wildlife and air quality. Unlike most agricultural businesses that operate on a short-term basis, we manage our land for the long-term.
On top of the regulatory costs and limits on harvesting on private land, it was proposed earlier last year that forest landowners pay an additional $10 million tax to help the state balance its budget. While this idea was defeated, some still incorrectly equate more taxes and costs with increased environmental protection.
Nothing could be further from the truth.
California’s forestry industry already operates under tough environmental rules. With or without additional fees, those rules will continue.
But by adding additional fees, the state would have killed more jobs and increased wood imports into our state. Already, we import more than 70 percent of the wood we use Ð up from just 30 percent 15 years ago.
When forestry businesses close, Californians lose jobs, rural economies suffer and often the land stops being a forest altogether. In the end, rather than preserving our forests, the forest is lost to development, a trend noted in a 2003 Cal Poly State University-San Luis Obispo study on the impact regulations have on forest sustainability in California.
We also inadvertently eliminate the infrastructure to harvest and process wood from our forests. While many might think that’s not important, we can see today how the lack of wood-processing facilities has exacerbated the problems in the San Bernardino Mountains.
With no wood-processing facilities within 250 miles, local officials are trying to lure wood-processing business to the area to help get trees out of the fire-endangered mountains. Until that happens, tons of wood will continue to go to waste in landfills.
It is time to adopt forward-looking polices that encourage companies that practice good forest management to not only stay in business, but to thrive. It is time for our elected leaders to look for ways to reward those that have demonstrated they care for the environment.
California’s rural communities need the jobs that the forestry industry provides. All Californians need high quality wood products. And, as we’ve seen in San Bernardino, California’s environment can benefit from having the capacity to harvest and process wood from our already overgrown forests.
Before we lose another 120 jobs, let’s work together to develop policies that ensure that our forestry companies – and our forests – survive for another 100 years and beyond.
Jim Holmes is president of the Soper-Wheeler Company, a 100-year-old forestry company based in Strawberry Valley, Calif.
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From all the residents of Grass Valley Senior Apartments, thank you to the firefighters, police department air support and everyone who responded to the Bennett Fire. God bless you all. You are all heroes.