How Come the Timber Industry Controls
California Forestry Policy?
Vince Taylor, Ph.D
An Economically Microscopic Midget
I pose the following question as a mystery that needs
explanation: How does an economically microscopic midget effectively control
public policy over forests that cover 25 percent of
California's land area and whose management significantly affects the quality of
life of most Californians.
The disparity between the timber industry's economic
importance and its political power is staggering. The timber industry
accounts for less than one one-thousandth of the state's
total economic production.
Yet, for as far back as anyone can remember and right to the present day,
the timber industry has dominated California forestry policy.
From a public-interest standpoint, something is radically
wrong with our government when a miniscule economic
interest controls the governance of California's forests. Why have the public's
repeatedly expressed concerns about environmental protection been essentially
powerless in the area of forestry? Why have environmental activists and
environmentally concerned legislators, supported by millions of Californians,
been completely ineffective in countering the influence of the economically tiny
timber industry? What can be done to change this situation?
These are questions that need serious
consideration and answers. The ability of an industry to easily overcome
the concerns and will of the people appears to be widespread. The timber
industry represents an extreme example of this phenomena.
Unbroken Record of Industry Influence
As far back as anyone can remember, the
timber industry has dominated forestry policy in every state administration,
whether Republican or Democratic. Top forestry
positions in the California Department of Forestry (CDF),
which enforces laws and regulations governing timber harvesting,
are regularly filled with people from big timber
companies or trade groups.
Since the Z'berg-Nejedly Act of
1973 gave the Board of Forestry power to approve
forestry regulations and set policies for the
Department of Forestry, persons allied with the timber industry people have
dominated the Board. For over 30 years, Democratic and
Republican governors alike have made appointments that have given the timber
industry a majority vote – ignoring the law that five out of the nine members
shall represent the public interest and only three shall represent the forest
These timber-focused appointees have
effectively nullified every legislative attempt to elevate environmental
and ecological concerns in forestry management, including most notably the path-breaking
Z'berg-Nejedly Forestry Practice Act of 1973. This law
mandated that all commercial
forests be managed for long-term
maximum sustained production. The Board and
CDF have failed to implement the intent of this law,
allowing timber production to decline precipitously, salmon streams to become
clogged with sediment, and forest landscapes to be denuded by clearcutting.
California harvested less than 40 percent as much timber
in 2003 as in 1978. Timber production in Mendocino County, formerly one of the
largest redwood producing counties in the state, has fallen over 80 percent.
These declines could not have occurred if the Z'berg-Nejedly Act had been
recent veto of a moderate bill to reform management of state forests shows that
big timber is still in full control of the
How Does the Timber Industry Succeed?
The unbroken dominance of the timber industry is
remarkable given its miniscule economic size. How has the timber industry been
able to succeed?
This is a question that needs answers from people more
familiar with the history and details than I, but I offer a few observations:
- Even though the timber industry is relatively
tiny, it still amounts to over a billion dollars per year. If the industry
devotes one-percent of its revenues to buying political influence, it has over
$10 million per year to spend.
- I have heard, but do not have the figures, that timber
interests have been major contributors to gubernatorial candidates of both
- The timber industry was historically much more
important than now, and political relationships built up in the past tend to
endure. It has strong lobbying relationships with agriculture and some labor
groups and is part of the larger business lobby.
- Historically, our state has treated forests primarily
as resources to be exploited, and schools of forestry have focused on
producing timber harvesting professionals, not forest ecologists. These timber
professionals staff both industry and government forestry positions, creating
an almost unquestioned bias toward timber production.
The success of the timber industry must also reflect a
failure of the public and its environmental lobbyists. Surveys always show that
forest and watershed health are high priorities for high percentages of the
public. Conservation and protection of forest health are priorities for a number
of the largest environmental organizations. Yet, neither expressed public
concerns nor environmental lobbying have effectively countered the influence of
the timber industry.
Why Has the Environmental Community
Why has the environmental community
failed to counter the timber industry effectively?
Again, this question needs answers from
people more intimately familiar with the workings of the political process in
Sacramento than I, but I have several observations:
Environmental organizations are
influential forces within the state legislature. A majority of legislators in
both houses generally support environmental positions, including those on
forestry policy. This reflects in large measure the large majorities of
liberal/progressive Democrats in both houses.
Environmental organizations have poor
relations with business lobbies and legislators who are responsive to business
Environmental organizations have had
and continue to have limited influence within the administration (the
executive branch, headed by the governor). This is due at least in part to the
priority given by all (most?) administrations to achieving a prosperous and
growing economy, which leads them to give great weight to the expressed
concerns of the business community.
The business community may also have
a disproportionate influence in the administration because campaign
contributions from businesses play a larger role in gubernatorial than in
The lack of strong relations between
environmental forestry advocates and any powerful business interests
may be the primary reason the timber industry is able to dominate forestry
What Can the
Environmental Community Do?
The environmentalist community needs to ask itself: What
are we doing wrong? How can we increase our influence over forestry policy and
appointments within the administration?
Again, the answer to these questions
needs to come from people more knowledgeable than I. If the above observations
are accurate, though, one objective should be
to start building alliances with important business
interests. One business
group that comes to mind is high technology.
In general, high technology firms are relatively
clean industries whose most important employees care about the environment in
which they live.
It should be possible to develop good
relations with selected business interests. Progressive businesses should
find it easy to support progressive forestry once they are shown that the timber
extraction industry is miniscule, especially if their
employees can be enlisted in this cause. Support of
business for progressive forestry in return for
environmentalist support for elements of
the progressive business agenda
would be a good horse trade.
The support of economically and politically powerful
allies within the business community would cut down the influence of the timber
industry. When truly big business speaks out for good forestry appointments, the
governor will listen. And the public will applaud. Good forestry is good popular
Forest and Timber Background
The following text and figures are
excerpted from The Changing California, Forest and Range Assessment 2003,
prepared by the California Department of Forestry. Highlights to the text are
supplied by the author and did not appear in the original.
Lumber production in California reached a low in 2001 of
just over 2.7 billion board feet, with an approximate wholesale value of
$1.1 billion dollars (Figure 77). This is the lowest year in the last two
decades, continuing to follow an overall downward trend both in number of
sawmills and lumber output.
To meet the growing demand for lumber and other forest
products, a demand that is equivalent to over 10 billion board feet of
lumber, paper, and other wood products annually, Californians rely
heavily on imports.
Estimates of wood product inflows from other states into California indicate
at least three billion board feet of lumber was imported from other western
states (Western Wood Products Association, 2002). In 2002, Oregon was
California’s single largest supplier of lumber. Additional lumber was also
imported from Canada as well as other countries and southern states. In
addition, California imports nearly all of its pulp and paper.
Value of products from
forest product sectors
The percentage of the state GSP
[Gross State Product] represented directly by the
lumber and wood products industry in 2000 is just under 0.3 percent (Figure 1).
Figure 1. Lumber,
wood, paper, and allied products Gross State Product as a percentage of
California Gross State Product, 1980, 1985, 1990, 1995 and 2000 (1996 constant
Department of Commerce, 2002b
covers a vast landscape of over 100 million acres, of which over 80 percent are
defined as forests and rangelands (Table 3, Figure 10). The geographic scope of
forests and rangelands are addressed by statute as those suitable for timber
production or grazing by domestic livestock, and other forested lands (Figure