S.J. Water Co. draws plan to log land near summit


By Paul Rogers
Mercury News



Karen T. Borchers / Mercury News

A view from the top of Mount Loma Prieta of an area where the San Jose Water Company
is proposing to thin out forests. Logging would occur over about 15 years, across 1,000 acres
of land the water company owns.



For the thousands of commuters who zoom over Highway 17 between Silicon Valley and Santa Cruz, the towering redwood trees along the route provide a scenic backdrop.

But lately, they are providing the backdrop for one of Santa Clara County's biggest logging battles ever.

The issue?

Officials at the San Jose Water Co., which provides drinking water to 1 million people -- in San Jose, Los Gatos, Saratoga, Cupertino and Campbell -- are proposing to log redwood and Douglas fir trees over 1,002 acres the company owns between Lexington Reservoir near Los Gatos and Summit Road at the Santa Clara-Santa Cruz county line.

Logging, says the company, will reduce fire danger by thinning out an overgrown forest that hasn't been logged in 100 years. They say it will protect their watershed from mud and ash that would pour into Los Gatos Creek during a major blaze. They cite a 1985 fire that burned 13,000 acres and 42 homes nearby.

``This is a modest, careful, rational and efficient plan that is mindful of the environment and the residents,'' said Rich Roth, chief executive of San Jose Water.

But neighbors strongly oppose the plan.

They have hired several top fire scientists who say the thinning will open the forest to more sunlight, drying it out and increasing fire danger. They also cite studies concluding that logging on the steep slopes could cause landslides.

``You've got some of the best people in the country saying it will increase fire risk,'' said Kevin Flynn, a Cisco Systems manager who lives in Chemeketa Park along Highway 17. ``If the wind turns the wrong way, the fire's going into downtown Los Gatos.''

`Extremely alarmed'

Flynn and other opponents say if the plan is approved by the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, they'll sue to stop it.

``The landslides this could cause threaten our roads and our homes,'' said Linda Wallace, president of the Chemeketa Park Mutual Water Co., and a 26-year resident of the area. ``We're extremely alarmed.''

The logging plan will be the subject of a public hearing Wednesday in San Jose. It calls for dividing the area into nine zones of about 100 acres each, and logging each once every 15 to 20 years for six weeks at a time. Timber crews wouldn't clear-cut the forests, they note, and would remove 40 percent of the trees over 24 inches in diameter and 20 percent of trees 12 inches around.

Neighbors, however, say the cumulative impacts threaten the whole area.

Ground zero is Chemeketa Park, where logging would be closest to homes. The private neighborhood five miles south of Los Gatos was built in 1925 by a Palo Alto developer who sold lots in the San Jose Mercury-Herald for $50 each. The 150 homes were used as vacation cabins for San Francisco and San Jose residents in the 1930s, but now are year-round residences.

At the heart of the debate is the size of the trees to be cut. Many fire studies show that large trees are more resistant to fire, while small trees and brush are most flammable. Critics say the water company is looking to make money on the project by taking mostly large trees.

``The small trees burn; the big trees don't. For fire risk, this plan is backward,'' said Jodi Frediani, a longtime Santa Cruz County logging activist hired by opponents to review the plans.

Frediani and other critics say they would support some logging in the area, as long as only the brush and smaller trees were removed.

``We're not against all logging. We're against irresponsible logging,'' said Terry Clark, a retired Hewlett-Packard manager living in Aldercroft Heights.

But the water company says it needs to cut some large trees to pay for removing small trees and brush, which have no timber value.

`Income stream'

`We need the income stream. Then we've got dollars to fund the brush clearing,'' said Andrew Gere, maintenance chief of the water company.

The company has hired Big Creek Lumber, a Davenport timber company, to write the logging plans and cut the trees.

``Removing brush can cost $4,500 an acre,'' said Matt Dias, a registered professional forester with Big Creek Lumber. ``You have to cut it by hand and haul it away to a landfill. It's expensive.''

The opponents note that San Francisco, Marin County and Santa Cruz ban logging in their watershed lands. The water company counters with Watsonville, the East Bay Municipal Utility District and New York City, which allow logging.

Roth, the water company CEO, said Friday that the company would make only $500,000 in profit every two years from its logging, after thinning brush and other costs were taken into account.

`Long-term road map'

Another controversy is that the company wants an open-ended state permit, known as a ``non-industrial timber management plan,'' which never expires. It says it needs certainty to invest the money to manage the watershed, with the plan including repairs to miles of old dirt roads, along with water quality monitoring twice a month at five locations along Los Gatos Creek.

``If all we were interested in was timber revenue, we'd do one heavy cut, make the money and be out of there,'' said Gere. ``This is a long-term road map and plan for managing the land.''

Gere confirmed that the water company and local land trusts and park agencies have discussed a possible sale of an easement limiting development. But he said any such deal would have to ``ensure the same management objectives,'' meaning forest thinning to reduce fire risk would remain.

Each side has stacks of scientific documents to buttress its case. That leaves some community leaders scratching their heads. Santa Clara County Supervisor Don Gage, who represents the area, said he hasn't made up his mind whether the county should fight the state if it approves the plan.

``I want to see the facts,'' he said. ``I'm trying to find a win-win situation. I don't want to make decisions on an emotional basis.''

Under state law, the open-ended permit requires ``sustainability,'' meaning no more wood can be cut than naturally grows back every 15 years. The water company is seeking to remove 15 million board feet over 15 years -- enough to build 1,000 houses.

Since 1995, there have been six other logging plans in the area. One, by Big Creek, was done six years ago on the other side of Highway 17, on 500 acres of the former Alma College property, now an open-space preserve. Today, a visitor to the forest has a hard time seeing where the logging occurred. Big trees remain where logging occurred, and new trees six to eight feet tall have grown up.

``We've had harvests in that area over the last 10 years,'' said Rich Sampson, a state forestry official in Felton. ``I haven't witnessed any major landslides from them, and there haven't been any major fires there.''

High profile

The debate took on a high profile several months ago when opponents used Google Earth software to create a ``flyover'' showing the area to be logged. Google employee Rebecca Moore showed it to former Vice President Al Gore when he visited the company, and he issued a statement calling the logging plan ``deeply flawed.''

Forestry officials will make a decision in the coming months. Sampson says they will continue to ask for changes such as rewriting slope rules. Until then, both sides are digging in.

``This is probably going to be the most highly scrutinized timber harvest in the history of California,'' Big Creek spokesman Bob Berlage said.


The California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection will hold a public hearing at 7 p.m. Wednesday at the Santa Clara County Board of Supervisors Chambers, 70 W. Hedding St., San Jose.


Contact Paul Rogers at or (408) 920-5045.


Full online article may be found here. 


Terry Clark
January 27, 2007