Sawing for Sierra sprawl
Large chippers and mechanical tree cutters rolled into the thin forest of Martis Valley this summer, taking out tall pines to make way for golf course fairways, roads and homesites.
Similar scenes to the tree clearing for the Eaglewood subdivision are occurring all over the Sierra Nevada, but nowhere faster than in Nevada and Placer counties.
The situation is a microcosm of the changes that have overtaken the Sierra Nevada, especially around Truckee. Once a land prized for its plentiful natural resources ” timber, minerals and grasslands ” the mountain range’s forests that have long accommodated tourism and recreation are now being carved up for real estate development.
And Placer and Nevada counties have been showing the effects of the new economy, converting forest land to housing faster than any other counties in the state over the last seven years, according to the California Department of Forestry.
Between 1998 and 2004 Placer county converted 2,102 acres to subdivisions. In Nevada County 1,942 acres of timberland became subdivisions in the same period.
The loss of forest for housing in the two counties represents 51 percent of the state’s overall conversion in the last seven years, according to the CDF.
“[The loss of timberland] is always a concern,” said Allen Robertson, deputy chief for environmental inspection at the California Department of Forestry. “Foresters don’t like to see timberland converted to non-timber-producing uses.”
In its 50 years of existence Robinson Enterprises, the Nevada City-based logging company that cleared trees for Eaglewood, has seen the changes. In the 1950s the company regularly harvested more than 100 million board feet of wood, much of it on federal land.
Now, although the company would not release its harvest totals, that number has declined, said Ed Walker, secretary and treasurer of Robinson Enterprises.
Some logging companies, like Robinson Enterprises, restricted by government regulations that have cut back timber harvests on public lands, are seeking the niche market of subdivision clearing to keep their companies alive in industry that is, essentially, dying a slow death.
“The industry is kind of drying up a little bit,” said Walker. “Doing that [subdivision] clearing has worked out well.”
Over the past few years Robinson Enterprises has picked up significant business clearing way for growth around Truckee. Several years ago the company cut trees for the Jack Nicklaus Golf Course and mansions of Old Greenwood, and logged the area that is now Coyote Moon Golf Course.
The logging of the 475-acre, 462-home Eaglewood subdivision followed.
“Everybody thinks we are making too much money, [when] we are going broke,” Walker said.
The building boom and the logging cutback on national forests has produced an unsurprising result. California, which used to produce enough wood to sustain its growth, now imports nearly 80 percent of its timber from other states or other countries, according to the California Forest Products Commission.
Nevada County has nearly 61,000 acres of land dedicated to timber production, according to a county assessment report. Over a thirty year period from 1969 to 1998, California lost approximately 113,000 acres of timberland to other uses ” a chunk of land comparable to twice the amount of Nevada County timberland, according to a CDF report.
The conversion is almost insignificant when placed alongside the state’s estimated 7.4 million acres of private forestland. But from the perspective of the two counties that are converting forests to housing at the fastest rate in California, the change is dramatic.
Surrounding Truckee, former logging holdings have gone the way of the economy ” conforming to recreation and housing needs. The Northstar-at-Tahoe ski resort was once timberland. And timber giant Sierra Pacific Industries has floated plans for housing and ski lifts on its more than 7,000 acres of land ringing the Martis Valley.
Overwhelmingly the largest conversions from timber producing land to other uses in the last three decades has come in the Northern Sierra, a segment of the range that includes Nevada County, according to the CDF.
The two biggest reasons to convert Northern Sierra forests to other uses were recreation and housing, according to the state report.
Grazing, which was a major reason for forest conversion in the 1970s, has been dwarfed by the number of forest acres that are becoming housing developments in the last two decades, the report said.
The Sierra Nevada Alliance, a Sierra conservation group based in South Lake Tahoe, sees the timberland being eaten up by the onslaught of housing as a looming problem.
The many private forests lull people into believing that much of the Sierra is open space, when in reality large amounts of forest land have the potential to become the next Sierra subdivision, said Autumn Bernstein, land use director for the Sierra Nevada Alliance.
“There are places that look like they are open but we have general plans and land use policies that allow these chunks of land to be chopped up into urban sprawl,” Bernstein said. “It is a silent problem.”
Even without large scale development on timberland, the conversion of seamless forests into smaller, inhabited parcels is a destructive trend that fragments wildlife habitat, said Perry Norris, executive director of the Truckee Donner Land Trust.
Norris calls the conversion of forest into large-lot homes “rural sprawl.”
“Are you going to see conversion of large tracts of land owned by [Sierra Pacific Industries] into subdivisions? I don’t think so,” said Norris. “However, that is not to say that you aren’t going to see large chunks of land cut into 160 [acres], 80 [acres] and 40 [acres].”
Rural sprawl was the threat when the land trust purchased nearly 2,000 acres, including Schallenberger Ridge above Donner Lake, that was later added to Donner Memorial State Park.
The purchase, which was completed in partnership with the Trust for Public Land, prevented the land from being chopped up and sold by Oregon-based Croman Timber company.
“Croman said that if we didn’t buy Schallenberger they would subdivide the land into 160-acre parcels,” Norris said. “Once something like that happens, reassembling the land with willing sellers is almost impossible.”
Since the Schallenberger transaction, the land trust has bought more 1,400 more acres of Croman Timber land near Gray Creek, and has another 2,400 acres of former logging holdings under contract near Independence Lake and Snow Mountain.
The purchases will save large chunks of forest land that Norris is convinced would have been subdivided for housing if the land trust did not step in.
The CDF’s Robertson said he sees the trend of forests being converted to housing continuing as long as opposition to logging ” and more profitable land uses in the Sierra Nevada ” persist.
“There is always the opportunity to use land for other purposes,” said Robertson. “When you combine that with neighbors that are opposed to logging. [Selling the land for housing] may be the only choice. Many landowners have their hands tied.”