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PG&E Cuts Down Trees Within the Jackson Demonstration State Forest Then Sells That Lumber

An example of the tree felling PG&E is conducting to reduce risk of trees coming in contact with transmission lines [Photographs provided by the Mama Tree Network]

PG&E has sold a little over a million board feet of lumber from trees it is cutting down around a transmission line on state land. This option is not available to most private landowners, but the utility occasionally pays a stumpage fee when removing merchantable timber from a large parcel of public lands, like the U.S. Forest Service or the Bureau of Land Management. 

In this case, the property consists of 115 acres in the Jackson Demonstration State Forest (JDSF), which is managed by the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, or CalFire. 

Last year, PG&E received two powerline right-of-way exemptions from CalFire to conduct the work around the power lines that run alongside Highway 20 between Willits and Fort Bragg. The operation is separate from the much-contested timber harvest plans that are the ongoing focus of environmental and Native American land-back activism. 

The work started last summer and is about halfway complete. Kevin Conway, the manager for CalFire’s demonstration state forest program, expects the sale of the lumber to bring about $140,000 to the forest. He said the timber is about half redwood and half mixed conifer. “By packaging this up as a larger project that goes across the lines from JDSF, we were able to have PG&E actually assume responsibility for merchandising those logs that were being removed for the safety and reliability of their transmission lines, and return some of that value to Jackson,” he said.

Walter Smith, of Willits, has an email list of hundreds of landowners in Mendocino and Humboldt counties who are outraged over PG&E’s relentless removal of trees from their properties. Stories of poor communication between landowners and the utility’s contractors, followed by dismay over the extent of the removal, abound. The situation with the JDSF land, which belongs to the state, is a conundrum for Smith. “I think it’s a double standard,” he said, of the fact that PG&E does not compensate most landowners for the trees it removes from their property. “On the other hand, would it create more of an incentive to cut more trees if landowners were being paid for them?”

PG&E sold the wood it cut on JDSF to Mendocino and Humboldt Redwood Company last year. John Andersen, the company’s Director of Public Policy, said about 600,000 board feet have been delivered so far. He is expecting another 800,000 board feet by the time the work is done in the summer or fall of this year. Some of the wood is going to the mill in Ukiah, which can take a log up to 28 inches in diameter. Larger logs are destined for the Humboldt County mill in Scotia.

Deanna Contreras, a PG&E spokesperson, said the contract between the utility and the timber company was approved by the California Public Utilities Commission, and wrote that “Any funds PG&E receives from the sawmills in exchange for the wood will be used to partially offset PG&E’s Stumpage Fee payments and PG&E’s costs of performing the vegetation management work there, which will far exceed any payment PG&E receives for the wood it delivers to the sawmills.” 

Conway agrees with PG&E that clearing the lines is not a timber operation that requires a timber harvest plan. Instead, he said, “We used a public utility right-of-way exemption, which is an exemption in the Forest Practice Rules that recognizes that there are certain areas of the forest where the primary purpose is not the growing of forest for various benefits but is for another use. We also have worked into our contract additional fuel reduction for PG&E to perform that is outside of their corridor right-of-way,” stretching into the adjacent forest.

Smith remains skeptical. He says cutting in the mixed canopy forest won’t solve the problem of PG&E’s regular, catastrophic wildfires. “Getting back to the whole issue, stop cutting down all these trees that don’t need to be cut down,” he said emphatically. “That’s problem number one. And the forest is not the problem. It’s the lines. And even some of the fires that have been started by PG&E, including the Paradise Fire, are because of poor, un-maintained equipment.”

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Sarah Reith
Sarah Reith
Sarah Reith is a radio and print reporter working in Mendocino and Humboldt counties, focusing on local politics and environmental news.

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