Big Creek Lumber Nightmare

For first-time visitors, finding Kevin Flynn's house in the Santa Cruz Mountains takes detailed instructions, an eagle eye for weathered signposts and, often, a plaintive last-minute cell-phone call from the road.

In this remote neighborhood near Los Gatos, homes are nestled along narrow roads that dip and curve through a fragrant redwood forest, and residents draw their water from mountain streams.

It is a close-knit, eclectic community -- artists, doctors, lawyers, police officers, people who work in Silicon Valley, families, retired couples -- that has galvanized in recent months to oppose a logging proposal by the San Jose Water Co. that residents say will ruin their idyllic neighborhood.

The privately held company wants to chop down many of the largest coast redwoods and Douglas firs in the forest near their neighborhoods.

"It will be a fight to protect our community," said Flynn, 46, a marketing manager in the Internet security field who lives in Chemeketa Park, one of several woodland neighborhoods near the 1,000-acre logging site.

On one side of the battle are residents, who fear that logging will muddy their creeks with sediment, increase the risk of forest fires and landslides, and disrupt their peaceful existence with buzzing chain saws, whining tractors, whirring helicopters and rumbling logging trucks.

On the other side of the debate is the water company, which says the logging will comply with state laws designed to protect the health of the forest, including its creeks and hillsides, and will reduce the fire hazard posed by dense tree stands on the property, which was clear-cut more than 100 years ago and has not been logged since.

"We own a lot of land, and it's our fiduciary duty to ratepayers and to shareholders to manage it as best we can," said Andrew Gere, a civil engineer and director of operations for the water company, which provides water service to more than 1 million customers.

Gere said proceeds from the logging will help fund expensive work in the watershed, such as repairing historic fire roads, terracing steep creek banks to stem erosion and removing brush and hardwoods by hand.

"In the long run, you're going to see an improvement in water quality, if anything, certainly not a degradation," he said.

Terry Clark, 56, who has lived in the mountains for nearly two decades, criticized the company, saying, "They want to turn this watershed into a tree harvesting farm."

Clark, a recreation program planner in Los Gatos, questioned the company's decision to log the largest redwoods in the forest, some of which are more than 3 feet in diameter.

"Those are the trees that survive fires," said Clark, a member of Neighbors Against Irresponsible Logging, which is fighting the logging proposal.

Because the proposal has generated so much controversy, Santa Clara County has hired Thomas Lippe, an environmental attorney whose client list includes the Sierra Club, to scrutinize the plan.

"He is going over the plan with a fine-tooth comb and will identify which issues are of primary concern," said Rachael Gibson, an aide to Santa Clara County Supervisor Donald Gage, who represents people living in the Santa Cruz Mountains. "We really need some help because we don't have any foresters on our staff."

In a 450-page plan submitted to the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection in October, the water company proposed harvesting the forest in stages, sending loggers into 100-acre parcels every other year.

The company's ability to log trees on the property, which is located within the 5,000 acres it owns in the Los Gatos Creek watershed, is limited by special rules governing logging in the state's coastal forests.

Trees must be individually selected for logging, and the impact of removing trees on the health of the remaining stands -- and their soil, streams and wildlife -- must be taken into account.

Andrew Morse, a forester with Big Creek Lumber Co., the water company's logging partner, said selective harvesting reduces fire risk by decreasing the number of trees whose branches are touching. It also creates gaps in the forest canopy that allow intermediate-size trees to get more sunlight and nutrients.

"A big part of what we do when we're marking trees for harvesting is look for trees that will benefit from creating some of those small gaps in the canopy," he said.

One of the rules governing selective harvesting allows the water company to remove up to 60 percent of the largest trees (measuring 18 inches or more in diameter) and up to 50 percent of the smaller trees (measuring 12 to 18 inches in diameter) in a forest.

That is a prospect that has caused widespread alarm among people living near the site.

"It would be fair to say it scares the heck out of us, too," said Gibson.

In its proposal, the company said it will log up to 40 percent of the largest trees, 20 percent less than the maximum allowed. So far, though, its attempts to convince critics it will stick to the lower percentage have failed.

"We're left with them wanting us to take them at their word," Gibson said. "That would make anybody nervous."

She said the stakes are high because the plan, once approved, will forever govern logging on the property.

The water company's Gere insists the water company will be a responsible steward of the forest.

"In 15 years, the volume of timber that was removed from a given parcel will have replaced itself," he said. "We can't remove any more trees until that happens."

To address concerns of residents about the impact of logging on forest fires, the water company has hired an independent fire scientist who is creating a model showing how fire will behave in the forest as it exists today, and after it has been logged.

Gere described the $125,000 study -- expected to be completed by spring -- as a good-faith effort to convince residents it is serious about reducing fire hazards.

"When we get those results, we're going to share them with our neighbors," he said.

Clark, of Neighbors Against Irresponsible Logging, said people who live in the Santa Cruz Mountains know the area is prone to fires. "We are certainly in favor of responsible fire prevention," she said. "But that's not what San Jose Water's proposal is all about. It's about commercial logging."

Critics of the logging plan say the company can reduce the fire risk by thinning trees instead of logging the forest.

That is how the San Francisco Public Utilities Commission handles fire suppression in the 23,000-acre watershed around Crystal Springs Reservoir, said spokesman Tony Winnicker.

"We do an annual survey of our lands, and selectively thin vegetation, especially in areas that are close to urban centers or homes and businesses," he said. "We selectively and strategically eliminate trees and clean some of the ground cover. That tends to be brush and eucalyptus trees, which are rapidly growing and extremely combustible."

The state forestry department, which has completed its first review of the San Jose Water Co. plan, has sent it dozens of questions seeking clarification and additional information.

A variety of government agencies are reviewing the plan, including the California Department of Fish and Game, the California Geological Survey, the Regional Water Quality Control Board, the Santa Clara Valley Water District and the Mid-Peninsula Regional Open Space District.

A public hearing on the plan is expected to be held in early 2006.

E-mail Kathleen Sullivan at ksullivan@sfchronicle.com.


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