The Timber Wars in the Pacific Northwest could have been avoided

Tree Thieves (1) is a non-fiction version of Damnation Spring, a novel that tells the story of the Timber Wars that ended with the death of the logging industry in the Pacific Northwest in the 1970s, 80s, and 90s.  Although the industry collapsed throughout the Pacific Northwest, both books focus on the redwood forests of coastal Northern California. 

Sequence of Events

When the timber industry began in earnest after the Gold Rush of the 1850s, there were said to be 2 million acres of redwood forest on the coast of California.  The demand for timber during the Gold Rush fueled the unrestricted clear-cut methods that decimated the forest, provoking a backlash.

The city-slickers who established the Save the Redwoods League in 1918

The National Park Service invited three well known conservationists to visit the redwood forests of Northern California, which led to the creation of the Save the Redwoods League in 1918.  Two members of that team–Madison Grant and Henry Osborn—were also advocates for eugenics, the control of human reproduction for the purpose of increasing characteristics considered desirable.  The author of Tree Thieves, Lyndsie Bourgon, describes their purpose for creating the Save the Redwoods League: “They considered protecting the redwoods as part of a mission to enshrine White, masculine dominance over the wilderness.” (1) Save the Redwoods League purchased several parcels of redwood forest for preservation, setting the stage for the continuing perception of environmentalism as the hobby of wealthy city dwellers, with little understanding of the lives of those who live and work in resource extraction industries such as forestry.  The League has acquired a total of 66 redwood forests as of 2018, according to Wikipedia. 

In the 1930s the government imposed restrictions on the timber industry that limited clear-cutting methods because of concern about dwindling timber stocks.  The industry returned to clear-cutting methods after World War II in response to the demand for new housing.  By 1968 90% of redwood forests had been logged, according to Tree Thieves.

Consequences of clear-cut logging

The author of Tree Thieves believes that the turning point leading to the Timber Wars was a flood in 1955 that triggered a landslide that “toppled 1,000 year old redwoods and covered the region in silt and mud.”  The landslide was the result of decades of clear-cutting the forest:  “During clear-cut logging, topsoil is lost and streams are bulldozed for roads…In Humboldt [County’s] forests, the root system could no longer contain the immense annual rainfall and waterways began to flood.  Mangled roots, lack of second growth, and flattened shrubs made the earth unstable and the construction of roads deep in the woods to transport logged wood had hastened erosion and habitat destruction.”

This is what remains of Orick, Ca. Google Earth

Clear-cut logging didn’t stop after the first flood and landslide and in 1964 another flood and landslide swept through the town of Orick.  The town of Orick is at the center of Tree Thieves’ telling of events.  Orick is said to be a Yurok word for “mouth of the river,” perhaps referring to Redwood Creek that bisects Orick. Yuroks were one of several tribes of Native Americans who were the first human inhabitants of the region.  At the height of the post-war timber boom, there were about 2,000 inhabitants of Orick.  The 2010 census downgraded Orick from a town to a “census designated place” with fewer than 400 inhabitants. 

These catastrophic floods alerted the Sierra Club to the issue of clear-cut logging and the government was becoming concerned about the environmental devastation it caused.  In 1968, the government established the Redwood National Forest, which ended logging in the park. The government believed—or said they believed–the park would create a tourist trade, replacing the logging economy.  Timber corporations were compensated by the government for the loss of their properties, but there wasn’t government relief for the loggers.

The Timber Wars

The promise of a tourist industry proved to be a fantasy, which forewarned the loggers of the consequences of expanding the national park that occurred in 1978.  This time the loggers fought back and environmentalists organized to engage in that war.  In the 1970s, Humboldt County became a rural refuge for hippies fleeing the druggy disorder of cities as described by Joan Didion in Slouching towards Bethlehem.  They were the foot-soldiers opposing the loggers in the Timber Wars.

Both sides of the Timber Wars engaged in violence and vandalism, as well as degrading rhetoric.  “ARE YOU AN ENVIRONMENTALIST, OR DO YOU WORK FOR A LIVING?” was a typical protest sticker worn by loggers.  One of the leaders of the environmentalists, Judi Bari, described the loggers as “the equivalent of the white racists in Mississippi…They’re being used by the system.  But they are people who are not real bright who have bought into it.”

The battle lines need not have been drawn between loggers and environmentalistsIf they had worked together to find a solution to environmental issues, the battle lines could have been the timber corporations vs. the government.  The decision to clear-cut and spray with herbicides was made by the corporations, not by the loggers.  Many of the loggers had learned their profession by taking individual trees in the forest, which quickly recovered from single tree removals.  They knew that clear-cutting was destructive and they probably would have been glad to return to less destructive methods of logging.  Many of them also knew that herbicides used for road clearance and destroying competing vegetation after clear-cuts were poisoning the watershed and sickening their community.  That aspect of the story is best told by Damnation Spring

If loggers and environmentalists had worked together to pressure the government to regulate the destructive aspects of the timber industry, the environmental issue could have been resolved without a war that permanently alienated both loggers and environmentalists.  Government has the right to regulate pesticide use and it could restrict clear-cutting, but it didn’t and it won’t.  The Timber Wars also alienated some people from environmentalism and others from the logging industry.  There is a lesson here for those who wish to learn it. 

The loggers were also disrespected by the government.  While the plan to expand the national park was being debated, the loggers organized a convoy of logging trucks across the country to Washington DC in 1977.  They carved a redwood log into the shape of a peanut, intended as a gift to President Carter, a former peanut farmer, hoping to engage him in a dialogue.  President Carter refused the gift and the request for a meeting.  He said the peanut-log was a waste of a valuable resource.  The logging convoy not only failed, but it subjected the loggers to abuse across the entire country and back.

The decision to expand Redwood National Park in 1978 incorporated the forests protected by the Save the Redwoods League and California state parks into a total of 139,000 acres, protecting approximately 45% of remaining redwood forests.  Once again, the timber corporations were compensated for the loss of their properties.  This time, the federal government tried to compensate loggers for the loss of their employment by funding a job training program, community development projects, watershed restoration, and direct compensation to unemployed loggers.   

The failure of the job retraining effort was very disappointing:  “By 1988, $104 million had been spent on about 3,500 people, of whom fewer than 13% had received retraining….’Never have so many given so much for so few,’ one critic noted of the funding.”

The fate of the loggers and their community

When spotted owls and several other forest species were designated as threatened species by the Endangered Species Act in the 1990s, much of the timber industry was also shuttered in Washington and Oregon.  Between 1980 and 1998, 23% of logging jobs were lost. 

Using the community of Orick in California as an example, Tree Thieves describes the consequences of the loss of the timber industry.  Many people moved away.  Those who remained pieced together a meager living of odd jobs.  Many of those odd jobs were criminal.  Poaching of whole trees in the national park is still common, but poaching the valuable redwood burls is more lucrative. 

Redwood burl. California State Parks

Redwood burls are the tree’s means of recovering from wounds.  The burls have artistic patterns in their wood grain that make them valuable to make furniture, art objects, and veneers for the dashboards of luxury cars.  The tree is damaged by the removal of its burls and is sometimes killed by the damage. 

Tree Thieves interviews many of the former loggers, now poachers.  They are an angry bunch who feel justified in their thievery.  Their livelihoods and self-respect have been taken from them and they have been subjected to decades of abuse by self-righteous environmentalists and government enforcement.  They now feel owed. 

Having won the Timber Wars, environmentalists are rarely directly engaged in confrontational encounters. Now the anger of dispossessed loggers is directed at government employees who are trying—with little success—to stop poaching and punish poachers.  Government employees are also imposing new restrictions on the communities surrounding the national park, opening new wounds.  For example, these poor communities are now prohibited from collecting drift wood on the beach, which was used to fuel wood-burning stoves in the past. 

Timber corporations were not blamed for the Timber Wars.  They were compensated by the government for the loss of their land.  They had already logged much of the land and didn’t see much future in the few forests that remained.  They were responsible for much of the loss of employment because they had mechanized much of the work and reduced availability of unlogged forests after clear-cutting for decades.  They walked away unharmed. 

Making, selling, and using methamphetamines is also a common way to survive in Humboldt County.  Those who choose that mode of survival frequently engage in other criminal behavior and their lives are often ruined in the process.

The marijuana trade in Humboldt County is also a popular career choice.  Ironically, the damage to the environment caused by large marijuana farms hidden in the forests is one of the consequences of the transition from a logging economy to an odd-job economy.

This scenario is probably similar to many other small towns and rural communities in America.  There are devastated communities in former coal country and in the rust-belt where manufacturing industries have been closed as the result of global trade agreements that enabled industries to move to countries with lower labor costs.  Those are the places where angry people no longer trust the government, where environmentalists and other “experts” are hated.  And those are the places where desperate, resentful people have turned to an angry, resentful politician to lead our country.  We reap what we have sown.

  1. Lyndsie Bourgon, Tree Thieves:  Crime and survival in North America’s woods, Little, Brown Stark, The Hatchett Group, 2022.  All quotes are from this book.  Some factual information is from Wikipedia.   

The consequences of dune “restoration” in coastal California

It is my pleasure to publish a guest post about dune “restorations” in Humboldt County that began about 30 years ago.  Like most “restorations,” these projects are primarily destroying non-native plants.  More often than not, they don’t plant native plants to replace the plants they destroy, although the stated goal is to “restore” native plants.

 Uri Driscoll tells us why the non-native plants were planted over 100 years ago and the consequences of removing them.  According to Mr. Driscoll’s Facebook page, he has lived in Arcata, Humboldt County since 1983.  He has had a life-long interest in outdoor recreation, horses, organic farming, and conservation.  He is a member of Arcata’s Open Space and Agriculture Committee.

 If you live in the San Francisco Bay Area, you might think these projects are not relevant to us.  In fact, they have everything to do with us because there are many similar projects here and the issues with those projects are similar. 

Bird’s eye view of San Francisco in 1868. US Library of Congress

 The San Francisco peninsula was about half barren sand dunes when Europeans first arrived at the end of the 18th century.  About 30 years ago, native plant advocates decided they wanted whatever open space that still remains on the peninsula to be returned to pre-settlement conditions, including sand dunes where they existed in the past.

These are the sand dunes in San Francisco where Golden Gate Park was built by creating a windbreak by planting trees. The windbreak stabilized the sand dunes and made it possible to plant and sustain vegetation behind the protection of the windbreak. San Francisco Public Library, historical photo collection.

Pacheco & 32nd Ave, San Francisco, 1943. San Francisco Public Library, historical photo collection

As residential neighborhoods in San Francisco were developed, iceplant and European beach grass were planted on the sand dunes to hold the sand in place.  Native dune plants are not capable of stabilizing sand for long, before strong winds move the sand beneath them.  In fact, the long term survival of native dune plants is dependent upon these disturbances. 

Trees were planted on the windward side of residential areas to protect them against the wind.  Sand on the leeward side of the trees was stabilized by the windbreak.  One of the first dune “restorations” in San Francisco proposed to destroy about 4,000 trees in the Presidio in order to restore an endangered dune plant, Lessingia germanorum.  The purpose of destroying the trees was to enable the sand to move again, ensuring the long-term survival of a native dune plant that exists only on the San Francisco peninsula.

Iceplant has been removed from several sand hills in residential neighborhoods, dumping sand on the properties at the base of the hills.  The Great Highway, which separates Ocean Beach from the residential Sunset District is often closed because of drifting sand after removal of beach grass.

In fact, everyone living on the coast of California should have an interest in the preservation of our sand dunes because they are our first line of defense against rising sea levels and the intense storms associated with climate change.  If non-native plants and trees are needed to maintain the stability of our sand dunes, so be it.  Competing agendas must take a back seat to the safety of our coastal communities.

Million Trees

Stable Dunes or Native Plants?

The North and South Spits of Humboldt County are the physical barrier between Humboldt Bay and the Pacific Ocean.  After the introduction of European beach grass (Ammophila arenaria) in the early 1900’s there has been a substantial stabilizing effect on the dunes as they grew wider and taller.  Prior to the establishment of the grass our dunes consisted of wide expanses of unvegetated, open, moving sand. This is in sharp contrast to the variety of plant cover we have today.

Humboldt Bay

In the 1980s public land managers began removing European beach grass with the goal of restoring native vegetation.  This is the story of the consequences of their projects.

Foredunes (the sand ridges parallel to and closest to the shore) with open, actively moving sands have a very high potential for accelerated erosion.  The foredunes of the North Spit and South Spit are still extremely vulnerable to accelerated erosion caused by disturbances to the vegetation.  A beach and dunes management plan and Environmental Impact Report (EIR) was developed in 1993 to address such issues.

Of greater concern, waves have washed over the foredunes on both spits where waves have breached the foredune where vegetative cover had been removed.  Repeated overwash events would significantly and immediately impact the only access road to the South Spit and the municipal water main and water treatment facilities on the North Spit.

These dunes could again be set in motion by removal of the protective cover of native and non-native vegetation.  Indeed, the intention to remobilize dunes was identified in the Conditional Use Permit application Bureau of Land Management (BLM) submitted for vegetation removal at Table Bluff County Park, a portion of the South Spit.  However, those intentions are contrary to the local Humboldt Bay Beach and Dune Management Plan and accompanying EIR.

The danger is that the South Spit’s dune topography is characterized as typically low and narrow.  With erosion and subsequent lowering of the foredune that occurs following vegetation removal, the right combination of concurrent high-magnitude seismic subsidence and wave attack could cause collapse of the land barrier between the Ocean and Humboldt Bay.  With anticipated sea level rise we would see this risk multiply.  

Source: 2008-2014 BLM monitoring report

The problem is that the previous and on-going work to remove European beach grass from the North and South Spits (in the effort to restore natural conditions and processes) has not and does not provide for the immediate re-establishment of other comparable  vegetative cover to trap moving sand and prevent accelerated dune erosion.  By not including this mandated mitigation measure, there is a real, legitimate potential for significant, cumulative environmental impact.

Why was European beach grass introduced?

The important thing to understand is that this specific type of beach grass (Ammophila arenaria) was introduced in Humboldt County in the early 1900’s.  It was done in order to stabilize dunes to protect growing communities and infrastructure. It had the additional benefit of creating extensive coastal wetlands and wildlife habitat.  By collecting sand from the beach the grass builds protective and multiple parallel ridges and accompanying deflation planes. These depressions behind the ridges act as sheltered nurseries for new plant and animal life. This process can take several decades but is reversed rapidly after the grass is removed. Such an effect has happened not only in Humboldt County but also in Point Reyes where valuable wetlands and organic pastures have been smothered by destabilized sand.

Why was European beach grass removed?

When the efforts to remove the non-native, albeit naturalized grasses began in the early 1990’s invasive biology was in its infant stages. Not much was known about the impacts from the eradication efforts of dominant species.  But to some it was important to return coastal areas to the pre-beach grass era so native plants would not be out-competed.

Every movement needs a poster child.  About this same time a cute little shore bird named the western snowy plover became just that.  Even though it is registered as a threatened species on the west coast, other parts of the country and Mexico have significant and stable populations.   We were told by local biologist Ron LaValley that the non-native grass needed to be removed to recover the local plover’s populationThis claim contradicted his original report showing plover eggs nestled in the non-native grass.  He was later convicted and sent to jail for falsifying data and embezzling a million dollars from similar projects involving the spotted owl.

Recognizing that manual eradication was very expensive and time consuming, California State Parks decided to bulldoze 40+ acres of Little River State Beach to provide plover breeding areas. Unfortunately, as Humboldt State Professor Mark Colwell noted in his 2008 report “importantly, eggs often fail to hatch in restored areas.”  This is largely because ravens and crows find it easy to locate the nests in open sand areas.

The Lanphere-Christenson Dunes Refuge director Eric Nelson determined during a 2016 Climate Ready project that the foredunes were being excessively eroded by the 25 California Conservation Corp (CCC) workers who were digging out beach grass.  His decision to spray glyphosate and imazapyr instead of hand removal was carried out despite public opposition.  It remains unclear whether, despite acknowledging excessive erosion from manual eradication efforts, the refuge will return to using that method again.

Lanphere Dunes and Mad River Slough

The public takes notice of the consequences

Some of us who live near these project areas and use them for recreation started noticing native tree mortality and changes to the landforms caused by removing the stabilizing grasses.   We started doing some initial research.  We began looking into coastal development permits, beach and dunes management plans and monitoring reports.  Our findings revealed the project areas that actually had permits also had mitigation requirements.  Those included immediate replanting and strict monitoring to make sure topography and landforms were not altered.  When we inquired about the monitoring and replanting programs we found those to be significantly deficient and in some cases non-existent.

Taking action

Our next step was to approach the various regulatory agencies.  US Fish and Wildlife Service, California Department of Fish and Wildlife and the State Water Board should be interested in the freshwater wetland infill we were witnessing.  The Harbor District and the municipal water district have a major interest in securing the two 42-inch industrial water mains protected by the same beach grass that was being removed.  The Manila Community Service District maintains a waste water treatment facility on the dunes.  We thought the California Coastal Commission would certainly want to know that these unauthorized alterations to coastal landforms were taking place. We felt sure the County planning department that issued some of the permits would take enforcement action.

The town of Manila’s water treatment facility

We brought photo and research documents from Oregon and Washington (2 and 3), made presentations and had meetings, site visits and sent email communications to no avail.

We stepped back and took a look at the board of directors for the non-profit called Friends of the Dunes (FOD) that has been promoting the grass removal from the very beginning.  They had grown from a small, broken down 400 square foot building with a net worth of about $20,000 in 2004 to 60 + acres of ocean front property with a 3000 square foot building and a net worth of over $3.4 million in 2014.  The board of directors at the time consisted of employees of most of the agencies listed above.  We understood then why we were running into so many road blocks.

Our community is well known for environmental activism.  So why the hesitation of local environmental organizations like the North Coast Environmental Center (NEC), Environmental Protection Information Center, and Bay Keeper to call out such impacts caused by bulldozers, herbicide spraying and wetland infilling?  We can only presume that the banner of “restoration” has been used as a blindfold.

Some significant successes….more to do

We have had worthy successes.  Through our efforts the California Coastal Commission has asked the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) for a new determination to address the impacts related to the Ocean Day activities involving 1000 school children digging grasses from the dunes.  So far, the BLM does not think it needs to provide that.  BLM puts on the event but the Coastal Commission bankrolls it.  We do not know yet what the Commission’s response will be to that refusal.

The town of Manila has stopped grass removal activities in its management area and has supported the planting of native pine trees (Pinus contorta, contorta) in the dunes, which we did last February.  The County planning department is engaged and acknowledges that there has been no contract with the California Conservation Corp or BLM for prior grass removal at the County Park and will not allow any more vegetation removal until a Memorandum of Understanding is developed.

The Coastal Commission has committed to reviewing the authorization allowances for BLM’s grass removal over the rest of the South Spit.  The existing Plan states a two-acre area would be subjected to grass removal strictly for monitoring purposes not the mile long area subjected to eradication to date.  BLM contends that authorization extends over the whole 800-acre Spit but have not been able to provide supporting documents.

The North Coast Environmental Center and even the Friends of the Dunes (FOD) took a position against spraying herbicides on the dunes.

Former board members of the FOD that are regulatory agency officials have resigned their director positions.

Communities around the country are hosting events to plant beach grasses like the ones that have been removed here.  Recognition of the incredible value of stabilized dunes is becoming more wide spread.  The “non-native” label is becoming more questioned.

Setting new goals and looking ahead

For us on the North Coast of California we need a much more cost effective and precautionary approach than tearing out plants that have beneficial attributes.  We need to allow the beach grass to do its job of stabilizing and protecting our dunes.  As we allow it to do that, the beach grass “declines in vigor” (4).  When that happens, other plant and animal species utilize those protections from the harsh winds and tides of the Pacific and establish heathy vibrant wildlife habitat. Our local and migratory wildlife depend on it. And so do we.

Uri Driscoll, Arcata, California

We commend the people of Humboldt County for paying attention to the damage that is being done to their public land and we congratulate them on the progress they have made to prevent further damage.  We are impressed with the methodical approach they have taken to convincing public land managers to reconsider the goals of the project and the methods being used to accomplish them. 

We wish them the best of luck with their efforts.  We are grateful to Uri Driscoll for taking the time and trouble to share this story with our readers.

Million Trees 

(1) South Spit Interim Management Plan 2002.

(2) Evaluating Coastal Protection Services Associated with Restoration Management of an Endangered Shorebird in Oregon, U.S.A.  Lindsey Carrol

(3) Sally Hacker, Oregon State University

(4) The Nature Conservancy Element Stewardship Abstract For AMMOPHILA ARENARIA,  Andrea Pickart