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Photograph by Felipe Buitrago

Stumping Against Stumping: Terri Clark with a map of Chemeketa Park, one area that will be affected by San Jose Water's proposal for logging around Los Gatos Creek. Clark is on the steering committee of Neighbors Against Irresponsible Logging (NAIL).

Chopping Mad

Residents around Los Gatos Creek are up in arms about San Jose Water's logging plan

By Vrinda Normand

Milton Barber's house was in the direct path of the Lexington Fire that swept through the Santa Cruz Mountains in 1985. On a July afternoon, warm winds were pushing the flames uphill, toward the summit where Barber owns 21 acres of forestland.

His wife, Joan, had gathered their three children and sped off in a Volkswagen van, scrambling to take their computer and a box of family photos. But Barber stayed, despite the helicopter that circled overhead with a man on a bullhorn demanding that he evacuate immediately.

He was determined to protect his house with a garden hose, fed by a 10,000-gallon tank at the top of the hill. Hours later, the flames came within 10 feet of the garage. A group of firemen had fled Barber's property when a neighbor's propane tank burst, spewing fire like a torch.

So Barber wrapped his head in a wet towel, took a deep breath and sprayed a steady stream of water into the furnace. The air was so hot it singed the hairs on his arms.

For nearly three hours he kept the fire at bay and saved his house. There was nothing he could do, though, about the rest of his property and the giant redwood trees that were nearly 1,500 years old. Joan and the kids returned to a desert of blackened sticks.

The Lexington Fire had consumed 16,000 acres and destroyed 42 homes.

"I thought, Oh my God, everything is burned. It'll never be the same," Joan says. "But you know what? It recovered."

The Barbers, along with many other mountain-dwellers in the same area, bounced back with a sharpened awareness of fire prevention, to say the least. Like the bald hills and charred trees that remain, the memory of that disaster is seared into the minds of local residents.

Neighbors in this community, which lies just the north of the summit, where Los Gatos Creek runs through a gulch and drains into the Lexington Reservoir, say that's why they're wary of a San Jose Water Company proposal to log 1,000 acres of its watershed land. The thickly wooded area in dispute stretches along 5.5 miles of the creek, spanning the steep slopes that surround it.

Nestled in the same slopes are four communities of "urban forest people," who straddle two worlds connected by Highway 17. According to the 2000 census, over 10,000 people reside in Los Gatos Creek Canyon, and nearly 4,000 live on or border the watershed.

Hundreds in this unusual suburbia are voicing opposition to the San Jose Water plan because they believe it will create more fire hazard. Ironically, the company claims the purpose of the proposal is fire protection. Residents, who were notified of the plan in July, say they're not buying it.

"We don't feel like we're getting the straight story from San Jose Water," says Rick Parfitt, a research scientist and member of the group Neighbors Against Irresponsible Logging (NAIL).

"People think we're just a bunch of tree huggers," says resident Terry Clark, "but this is a neighborhood up here, not just the wilds."

Red Flags in The Forest

The core of this grassroots effort brings together representatives from each of the four affected communities, who have hired two consultants to help them analyze the 450-page document and are speaking with a variety of experts about potential risks.

Armed with that information, they say San Jose Water's timber harvest plan, which was filed with the California Department of Forestry (CDF) in October, has raised concerns in several areas:

Threatening the forest canopy: This is the most direct and obvious impact to the environment, resident opponents say, because San Jose Water, in contract with Davenport-based Big Creek Lumber, aims to cut the largest and most valuable trees. This includes redwoods and Douglas firs at least 1 foot in diameter, some as thick as 4 feet. Steve Staub, a forestry consultant in the Santa Cruz Mountains, estimates that redwoods in this size range could yield $40 to $2,000 each in timber.

These trees, many over 300 feet tall, form a high layer over the forest, shading it from sunlight so the underbrush doesn't dry out and become more fire-prone. Breaks in the canopy's shade also feed invasive plants like brush, which are the most likely to burn. Added to this fuel factor could be up to 30 inches of "slash" or branches and needles left over after the tree trunks are removed. Furthermore, redwoods are known to be fire-resistant—a thick grove of them can help curb a wild blaze.

San Jose Water could legally cut up to half of the trees 12-18 inches in diameter, and 60 percent of trees greater than 18 inches in diameter.

"That sounds like a lot of sunlight to me," says Jodi Frediani, one of the consultants hired by NAIL to help analyze the proposal. The executive director of Citizens for Responsible Forest Management, Frediani has been reviewing technical logging plans for 25 years.

San Jose Water has responded to this and other concerns in a Frequently Asked Questions webpage at www.hiway17.com, which says the company only intends to take 20 percent of the trees over 12 inches wide and 40 percent of trees over 24 inches wide. Frediani says this promise is not legally enforceable and isn't any better than a "Girl Scout pledge."

The FAQ also explains that the canopy will only be "partially removed during any given harvest," and that redwood branches will quickly grow to fill in the gaps.

But residents say that if San Jose Water's primary motive was indeed fire protection, it would be targeting smaller trees, dead trees, hardwoods and underbrush. This is exactly what local CDF official Darrell Wolf does on the watershed owned by the Santa Clara Valley Water District, four miles away. He has proposed conducting such a project on the Los Gatos watershed because he hasn't seen the San Jose Water do that kind of land management. "They pretty much leave it in its natural state," he says.

San Jose Water spokesman John Tang says the company hasn't focused much energy on land management in the past 10 years because it has been busy upgrading its pipes and treatment plants. It has owned the watershed land since the early 1900s.

"It's really just a forest we use to collect water from," he says.

Tang says the timber plan is only part of a larger strategy to maintain the watershed. While mountain residents say San Jose Water initially told them logging would help thin the forest and reduce fire risk, Tang now says logging will help fund other programs that focus on road improvement and fire prevention. However, he had no specifics about how the company would treat brush and small trees, and plan documents are not yet available to the public because they are still being prepared with the help of a fire scientist.

One local CDF forester named Rich Sampson doesn't believe San Jose Water's plan will pose more fire risk to the watershed, at least not any more than the growth of residential development already has. "What I'm hearing are a lot of people who are not familiar with the process or the industry," Sampson says. "From my standpoint, timber harvesting is one of the best ways to modify fuels."

Disturbing the quality of life. This is a big source of worry for people living, working and going to school near the logging zone. In one area, loggers could be shouting "timber" only 250 yards away from an elementary school, middle school and day care center. What's more, six helipads will be installed for aircraft to help remove the trees—which will also be done by tractors, trucks and large cranes that drag logs up the side of the mountain by cables.

"It's gonna be insane," exclaims Harold Lee, a retired software engineer who has lived on the summit for 30 years. Clark says he's worried about the noise from industrial saws driving through thick trunks.

Rebecca Moore, a software engineer for Google Earth, says that because sound travels uphill, timber harvesting on the watershed would reverberate throughout the canyon.

Tang acknowledges that there will be social impacts. "We are working to mitigate and minimize them," he says. He adds that all 1,000 acres will not be logged at the same time. The area is divided into nine units and only one will be harvested every other year. Furthermore, he says the logging season in any given year only lasts for six weeks during the summer, and operations will occur Monday through Friday from 8am to 4pm.

NAIL members, though, say they're skeptical of these assurances. While the company says it will only harvest during the above times, the logging proposal requests the legal maximums, which include allowing operations from 7am to 7pm that could extend into the winter season.

"Essentially, SJW has kept all their legal options open," Frediani says. She also points out that even if the company had the best of intentions, it could change hands and the logging permit would remain the same.

If approved, the logging plan would last forever. San Jose Water wants to reharvest each section every 15 years, "in perpetuity," the document reads.

"Mistakes in this matter should be avoided at all costs," writes resident Celia Francis to county Supervisor Don Gage, "since the effects will be felt 'in perpetuity.'"

Danger to water quality: Many experts say tree harvesting on a watershed is actually harmful to water quality, causing more erosion and sedimentation in streams. Charles Hardy, spokesman for the East Bay Municipal Utility District, says logging is a "big no-no" on its watersheds for "obvious reasons." Uprooting trees loosens the soil and results in more runoff into water systems when it rains. The only tree-removal activities his company engages in are to clear paths for fire trucks and clean out the underbrush to maintain trails.

The Marin Municipal Water District manages 22,000 acres of watershed land and does not allow logging, in order to the keep the area as pristine as possible. The last time it removed any trees was in 1997čthat was a small population of nonnative pine trees that infringed upon the native ecosystem. Spokesman Michael Swezy puts it simply: "An undisturbed watershed is going to yield better-quality water.

Why would San Jose Water launch a project that could endanger its primary product? The company provides water for nearly 1 million people, largely in the western part of Santa Clara County. Ten percent of that water comes from Los Gatos Creek.

"Logging is only a risk if it's not done correctly," spokesman Tang says. "We're pretty comfortable that our project is going to turn out well."

Dumber Than Stumps

Still, NAIL has gathered over 1,500 signatures to oppose the plan. Its first public meeting, held on Sept. 11, drew 350 people, with overflow outside of the building. Moore displayed a three-dimensional map and virtual flyover of the area to be logged. She says people gasped at the extent of the zone and its proximity to their houses.

After NAIL's presentation, many residents stepped up to the microphone and pleaded with representatives from San Jose Water and Big Creek Lumber, who were present in the audience, to stop the logging proposal.

"They must think we're dumber than the stumps they're gonna leave if they think we're gonna agree to a plan like this," one man said.

Members of NAIL have met with all members of the county Board of Supervisors. Rachael Gibson, Don Gage's aide, says NAIL is one of the "more effective" groups she's worked with. After their presentation to the board, all five supervisors were sympathetic to their concerns, she says.

The county has hired a consultant to review the logging plan; it is currently drafting an official response to the CDF, which has the authority to approve or deny the proposal. The board will also request a public hearing with the state agency for residents to speak out.

Leslie Markham, division chief for the CDF, says a pre-harvest inspection of the forest will probably happen in December, which will involve a comprehensive review team that includes a county representative. After the review team offers a recommendation, Markham or another top official will make the final decision.

Frediani says it is extremely rare for the CDF to deny a logging plan, but one can appeal to a higher body, the state Board of Forestry. Gibson says that Gage is prepared to do this if he found reason.

Just two years ago, the CDF approved a controversial logging plan on the Lompico Creek headwaters in Felton—which had been deemed "impaired" because of the creek's high sedimentation levels. The water source could not safely withstand more pollution potentially caused by tree harvesting.

So the County of Santa Cruz appealed to the Board of Forestry, and its request was granted. Redwood Empire, the logging company originally turned down, has recently resubmitted its plan.

Signs of Change

Summit resident Lee drives through the shady San Jose Water property on one of the few private roads that are still available to the public. "No Trespassing" signs are dotted along broad redwood trunks. Lee points to one and jokes, "They're going to need a new post to hold up their sign."

Someone else in the neighborhood has taken the liberty of adding to one of those trunks a farewell shrine composed of a blue ribbon and a photocopy of the logging plan map.

Lee says he was ambivalent about San Jose Water's proposal when he first heard about it. As a landowner, he too must occasionally remove trees to keep his property in shape. After learning more, though, he became angry. "It seems like they're trying turn this forest into a tree farm," he grumbles. "This is not just a little operation to help fire control."


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From the December 7-13, 2005 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

Copyright © 2005 Metro Publishing Inc. Metroactive is affiliated with the Boulevards Network.

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