Calif. Timber Giant Threatens to "Convert" Sierra Nevada Forests
Calif. Timber Giant Threatens to "Convert" Sierra Nevada Forests
November 27, 2008
FORESTS FOREVER ALERTS
SPI SEEKS ZONING CHANGES to ALLOW TIMBERLANDS to BE DEVELOPED
Attorney General’s Office Weighs-in on a Disturbing Trend
When California’s largest logging company turns into a real-estate developer the consequences bode ill for the natural environment. Even California Attorney General Edmund G. Brown, Jr., sees the danger to wildlife habitat, timber supplies, and the global climate in allowing timber companies to rezone their lands for real-estate development. Thousands of acres of forested land in the state could be removed from timber production and converted to other uses, from mining to housing construction, in the process undermining the state’s climate protection strategies and degrading watersheds and wildlife habitat. Fortunately, in at least one case this November, Brown’s department helped put the brakes on what has become a disturbing trend. The attorney general deserves credit for his agency’s action, and encouragement to continue assuring California’s private forestlands remain forested.
TO TAKE ACTION: Write to Attorney General Brown and thank him for looking out for the interests of forests, climate, and wildlife habitat. Urge him to continue pressing California counties to consider global warming and forest conservation issues before they allow zoning changes that would permit forest-area development. Attorney General Edmund G. Brown, Jr. Public Inquiry Unit Office of the Attorney General P.O. Box 944255 Sacramento, CA 94244-2550
If you want to do more you can mail in comments on the official General Form for Comments/Questions to the attorney general. Download the form at: http://ag.ca.gov/contact/generalform.pdf
Also contact your county supervisors and remind them of their obligation to protect forest resources and the environment by standing firm against forestland rezoning proposals.
IN DEPTH: In June of this year, the Sacramento Bee reported, Sierra Pacific Industries (SPI), California’s largest timber company and land owner, won approval to rezone as “General Forest” about 5500 acres in Lassen County that had been managed for timber production.
This rezoning was a snapshot of a larger picture unfolding of a timber company harboring real-estate developer ambitions. A pattern is emerging as, in county after county, SPI seeks to have lands now classified as Timberland Production Zones (TPZs)– areas restricted to timber operations and off-limits to development– reclassified as General Forest Zones, which allow for the development of ranches, summer home tracts, mobile home parks, airports, country clubs, mines, quarries and more.
“The decision by the [Lassen County] supervisors is the latest action on the Anderson-based timber company's request to rezone more than 30,000 acres in five Northern California counties,” reported Bee correspondent Jane Braxton Little.
In September the High Sierra Rural Alliance, a nonprofit grassroots organization, petitioned Sierra County supervisors to reverse a recent decision to rezone more than 7000 acres of prime Sierra timberland owned owned by SPI.
County by county, rezoning conversions are getting the go-ahead. Even the most active citizen groups are having a tough time counteracting the trend.
According to the Bee, SPI officials indicated they have immediate no plans for putting housing on any of the rezoned lands in Northern California. The company has requested the rezonings “to increase management options” on properties in the rural counties.
Something is amiss in the rezoning process. The apparent pattern of counties rezoning land from timber production to commercial development is directly at odds with the stated intent of the California legislature.
The California Timberland Productivity Act of 1982 (CTPA) explicitly seeks to “discourage premature or unnecessary conversion of timberland to urban and other uses; discourage expansion of urban services into timberland; and encourage investment in timberlands based on reasonable expectation of harvest.” In approving the CTPA, the law that established TPZ zoning and describes the powers and duties of local government in protecting timberlands, the legislators made the following finding:
“The state's increasing population threatens to erode the timberland base and diminish forest resource productivity through pressures to divert timberland to urban and other uses and through pressures to restrict or prohibit timber operations when viewed as being in conflict with non-timberland uses. . . .” The California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection (CDF) is on record opposing rezoning. “CDF does not support moving land from TPZ to zoning classes that may lead to future development,” the agency announced in January 2007.
“CDF is extremely concerned with the erosion of the state's timber Base and the increased fire hazard from the future development that is likely to occur on these [rezoned] lands.” SPI maintains an active real-estate division, and the company notes that “although our primary interest is timberland acquisition, other types of lands often come with these purchases. These properties include parcels of land suitable for residential, business and recreational development.” In total, California has 5,418,979 acres of land classified as TPZs distributed in 32 counties. According to the CDF, approximately three quarters of California’s private forestlands are zoned TPZ. Landowners still pay an annual property tax, but the assessed value of TPZ land is valued for the cultivation of timber. This results in a lower tax assessment than customary "highest and best use" valuation.
On Nov. 3 of this year, Attorney General Brown’s office weighed in on the controversy with a letter to the Siskiyou County Planning Department, commenting on SPI’s request for a zoning change involving 3,846 acres on the southern slope of Mount Shasta. “The site’s current habitat supports hundreds of important Sierra species,” the letter noted. “The Zone Change will allow a range of potential new uses of the land, including farm labor housing, single family dwellings, agricultural uses and elderly housing.” Other uses of the land, dependent on SPI obtaining a conditional use permit, include “churches, schools, parks, playgrounds, private airports, dairies, commercial feedlots, golf courses. “As a factual matter,” Brown’s office observed, “it appears that many potential uses that are likely to have environmental impacts will be allowed without any further review.
“Of particular interest to the Attorney General,” the letter continued, “is that the Zone Change makes it more likely that this approximately 3800 acres of land will move out of timber production and into another use, resulting in the loss of forested land in the State. The environmental review document does not address how this rezoning may affect the net carbon balance in California. With our increasing awareness of the seriousness of the problem of climate change, climate protection strategies, including forest conservation,are acknowledged as being increasingly important in California. The loss of forest land is the second largest cause of greenhouse gas emissions globally, and forests are the most expandable long-term sink for carbon dioxide.” Brown’s office also addressed a theme apparently common to all or most of SPI’s requests for zone changes: the company’s resistance to detailing the purpose for the rezoning.
A footnote in the Attorney General’s legal opinion observed that “It does not appear that the applicant [SPI] has identified or disclosed the purpose and need of this Zone Change or its intended use of the land after rezoning. Not knowing the intended use of the land after the Zone Change is approved makes it difficult for the County to meaningfully evaluate the Zone Change’s impacts to the environment and leads to our concern that there may not be sufficient evidence to support the County’s conclusion that no impacts are anticipated.”