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Lessons from California's Forest Practice Act

Historic development
Poll of resource managers
Positive aspects
Negative aspects
Emerging issues

Donald P. Gasser
Harvesting Specialist
University of California Berkeley,
California, USA


A poll of forest managers in California details successes and failures of the twenty year old California Forest Practices Act and its attendant rules and regulations. Soil stability and water quality are greatly improved, as are conditions for forest fauna. A framework for solving problems is well accepted. Forests are being regenerated wherever they are cut. The burden of regulation is most heavy on the non-industrial private forest landowner. Many forest managers describe these prescriptive rules as lacking in flexibility, expensive to implement, and occasionally counterproductive.


California has been a leader in the development of forest practice regulation. In order to detail some of the impacts of the State's Forest Practices Act, interviews and letters were solicited from more than thirty resource managers who have operated under the new Act since its 1974 inception. Most of the twenty-three land managers, loggers, and regulators who responded were in the private sector and had dealt with operations both before and after the implementation of the California Forest Practices Act. This paper is a compendium of their views as reported by the author, who has spent twenty-eight years in the arena of California forest practice regulation.

Historic development

The development of the 1946 Forest Practices Act was given impetus by the traditional fear of running out of wood, coupled with concern within the State's lumber industry that the Federal government was going to get involved in forest regulation (Arvola, 1976). Regulation of forest practice in this early Act was controlled by a Board of Forestry that was dominated by representatives from the forest industry. This Act was in force for over twenty-five years, until examination by a university class led to a court case which determined that this set of regulations was akin to having the hen house guarded by the foxes (Bayside, 1971).

Following invalidation of the 1946 Act, there was a flurry of legislative activity that resulted in the Z'Berg-Nejedly Forest Practices Act (FPA), which took effect January 1, 1974. This new law superseded the old, and re-established a nine member Board of Forestry whose mandate was the control over forest practices and forest resources in California. This Board, by law, is dominated by those from outside the forest products industry who have no financial connection to the forest industry. This Act requires that a Timber Harvest Plan (THP) be prepared by a (newly created) Registered Professional Forester (RPF) for timber harvest on virtually all non-federal land. The Board of Forestry is the policy arm of the California Department of Forestry, which is the enforcement branch.

The FPA also established the requirement that all non-federal forests cut in the State be regenerated with at least three hundred stems per acre on high site lands, and one hundred fifty trees per acre on low site lands. In 1976, this Act was declared the functional equivalent of an Environmental Impact Report required for such activities under the California Environmental Quality Act (Green, 1982).

This FPA and each Board of Forestry were active, always with new rules being created, until 1990, when public concern about forestry resurfaced in an unresolved contest of ballot-box forestry. Three initiative measures were signed by enough citizens to be placed on the ballot, and at least twenty million dollars were spent to support/defeat these. Despite bitter contests, none passed. Some of the bloodied combatants of this skirmish in California's 'timber wars' decided to try to work together. They developed an accord that was to put into motion many of the clauses and directions of the defeated initiatives. This led to a larger accord, which in the end passed the legislature, but ultimately was not signed by the Governor. The focus of both the initiatives and the accords became a matter of Board of Forestry concern immediately thereafter, and subsequent intense discussion resulted in the adoption in 1993 of rules that go beyond forest practice regulation, and attempt the protection and development of forests through THP's which now require sustained yield planning, with, for example, requirements that all forest land owners develop at least 15% late-seral-stage forests on their ownership.

These new rules were added to regulations regarding cumulative impacts, archaeological sites and habitat protection already in place. One subsequent important element has been the addition of other Resources Agency Departments gaining standing in the rules.

Poll of resource managers

Late in 1994,1 polled thirty land managers in the State of California, asking what was 'right' with the rules. These managers were asked to put a historical and worldwide perspective on current state of California forest practice rules, particularly those regulations that have been successful in providing environmental protections. I asked them to look past the day-today concerns and to focus on regulation elements that promote good forestry.

Positive aspects

There was substantial agreement among many of those polled on many aspects of the Forest Practices Act and rules, no matter whether those asked were from industry, agency, or consulting firms. The conclusions and agreement, in order of acceptance by this diverse group, were:

1. Almost unanimous agreement that 'public trust resources' of soil and water are much better protected than prior to implementation of the 1973 FPA. Both awareness and protection have substantially increased, with a concomitant dramatic improvement in water quality. Specific rules which have led to this improvement are, (a) the location, construction, and maintenance of roads, and (b) the frequency and placement of erosion control structures.

The classification of streams by biologic and physical features into four categories, and their attendant buffer strips and protection measures, is seen as a major positive step in environmental protection. Use of erosion hazard (EHR) ratings, with site-specific elements of weather, slope, and soil determinations, has substantially reduced erosion problems. The requirement for maintenance of erosion control structures for at least three years following harvest has assured long term interest by landowners in rehabilitation of logged sites. Road classification into permanent, seasonal, or temporary, coupled with planning for fifty-year flood events has helped to ensure continuance of long term access, while cross drain specifications and spacings determined by EHR has helped to keep the internal access systems and their soils in place.

2. Substantial agreement that current rules have improved riparian habitat, and that care for forest fauna is much improved. A holistic approach which includes cumulative impact assessment has helped to focus on resources that were previously getting short shrift in planning and operations.

3. Strong feeling that there are now processes for resolving problems, and that a structural framework has been developed in which procedures are agreed-upon. This has created a stewardship chain of responsibility which some managers argue is more a function of people than of rules.

4. Positive support for mandated restocking of logged areas ensures a forest in the future wherever trees have been cut. Replanting and establishment of proper stocking is seen as a normal cost of harvesting trees.

5. Agreement that a new emphasis focusing on long term monitoring be done with a long term outlook, since the twenty years of the FPA is a short period in the life of the trees and forests and lands that managers are trying to manage. There is substantial disagreement about who should monitor how and what.

Negative aspects

These positive statements about the current rules were countered, as expected, by negative statements that should caution those who contemplate highly prescriptive forest practice regulation. In order of agreement as to negative impacts, these are:

1. Reliance on prescriptive rules, rather than objective standards, has greatly reduced management flexibility.

2. The emphasis in developing a Timber Harvest Plan has become one of documentation, diverting expertise from proper land management to proper paperwork and form filing. The THP form itself is now a minor part of the entire THP package. Substantial time and effort is now put into rule compliance rather than land management.

3. Regulation has become a politically driven process, and there is little faith that the motivation for new regulations will cease. The addition of political ends into forestry practices reduces the ability to practice good forestry. Political forestry serves lawyers, not forests.

4. Substantial costs are incurred that have little environmental benefit. Minimum preparation costs of a timber harvest plan are now $8000 to $12,000, with many well over $20,000. These costs have risen by five to ten times in the last decade. (Green, 1981; Gasser, 1985; Salazar, 1988) Going after the last bit of environmental protection is tremendously expensive, and the benefit is not worth the cost.

5. Turf battles between regulators place more emphasis on political power than on environmental quality. The Departments within the Resources Agency do not seem to work together in ways that foster the goals of private forest land management.

6. The burden of regulation is not equitable, and the oppression is most onerous on the non-industrial private forest landowner. This burden often drives owners of forest lands into one of two different directions. With the extreme cost of THPs, landowners are cutting their lands harder than would be silviculturally advisable, to defray the cost of regulation as well as to reduce the need for harvest in future years, (when the cost of a new THP needs to be borne again). The other result of regulatory burden is driving some landowners out of timber production, and leads to conversion of forest land to other uses such as sub-divisions for homes or clearing for agricultural uses, often for grape production. More than one landowner has avoided commercial sale (and thus regulation) by bulldozing, piling, and burning the timber, a rather questionable use of fiber and soil resources.

There was disagreement about the creation of new rules, since there are those who feel that more rules create more loopholes. There was adamant expression that the desire to 'get the last few bad apples' will never be fulfilled through a rule-making process, although some regulators advocated this as a primary goal. There is no certainty that a landowner will be able to harvest in the future, and no assurance that the rules will reflect forest or forest landowner needs. The stability necessary for forest investment has disappeared, and it is questionable whether a prudent land manager should invest in forestry.

Emerging issues

Some emerging issues surfaced through this process of discussion and contemplation. These may need examination though time:

1. The emphasis on the development of late seral stage forests, coupled with the requirement to regenerate, is creating an imbalance in early seral stage forest development. Deer herds are suffering, as most early seral stages are found in wildfire and agricultural areas. This new forest cover is at odds with historical vegetation, in some locations.

2. The problems in California forestry relate to overstocked forests, not understocked. Raging wildfires are ensured for decades, owing to continuous and expanding fuel loading.

3. Requirements to carry higher tree inventories on forest sites may reduce both productivity and quality in the long run.

4. Some streams may be over-protected, as streamside rules may lead to 'nutrient theft' in the long run..

5. Sustained Yield Production plans are being developed for ease of regulation, and not to ensure proper forest practices.

6. Education of the public is a key forestry tool which is being under-utilized by the Board of Forestry.


California's forests are extremely diverse, and the points made by managers may be valid for some areas and not for others. There is universal agreement on none of the points mentioned herein, thus the need for regulation has been affirmed by this polling process. The prescriptive practices appear to be a burden wherever applied, particularly among non-industrial private forest landowners. The development of statewide rules is at odds with ecosystem management needed for diverse forest sites. While forest conditions of soil and water quality have been measurably improved in twenty years of regulation, attempts to regulate California's huge forest lands through prescriptive rules is seen as constraining to management and productivity as well as expensive at all levels of implementation.

Literature Cited

Arvola, T.F. 1976. Regulation of logging in California, 1943-1975.

California Division of Forestry. Sacramento, California, USA.

Bayside Timber Company v. Board of Supervisors of San Mateo County. 1971. 20Cal App 3rd 1, 97 Cal. Reporter 431.

Gasser, Donald P. 1985. Impacts of forest practice regulation in California. In: Forest Operations in Politically and Environmentally Sensitive Areas, Proceedings of the Council of Forest Engineering, Tahoe City, CA. ASAE Proceedings, UC Davis, CA.

Green, Peter F., F. Norbury, M. Palley, and H. Vaux. 1981. Regulation of forest practices in California, Department of Forestry and Resource Management, College of Natural Resources, University of California at Berkeley.

Green, Peter F. 1982. Government regulation in the forests: impacts of the 1973 California Forest Practices Act. Institute of Ecology, Environmental Quality Series #36, University of California, Davis.

Salazar, Debra J., A. Barton, and John Macklin. 1988. Comparative analysis of state forest practice regulations. College of Natural Resources, University of Washington, Seattle, WA., 115 pages.

Z'Berg-Nejedly Forest Practices Act. 1973. Division 4, Chapter 8, Public Resources Code, State of California, Sacramento, CA.

Author's Contact Information

Don Gasser
Harvesting Specialist
Department of Environmental Science, Policy and Management
University of California
145 Mulford Hall
Berkeley, CA 94720-3114 U.S.A.
Telephone: +1510642-5059
Fax: +1510643-5438
E-mail: [email protected]

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