SJ Mercury News: Neighbors use high-tech tools to challenge logging plan

The following article appeared in the February 1, 2007 San Jose Mercury News:

Neighbors use high-tech tools to challenge logging plan

By Paul Rogers
Mercury News

Armed with high-tech cameras, mapping software and a helicopter flown by a nemesis of Barbra Streisand, neighbors opposing a plan by San Jose Water Co. to log 1,000 acres in the Los Gatos Creek watershed claim they have found the plan's Achilles' heel.

Aerial photos and a detailed computer analysis show that the water company owns at least 2,754 acres of timberland containing redwood and Douglas fir trees, opponents said outside a public forum Wednesday.

That's a key number, because California law sets 2,500 acres as the maximum amount of forest land containing commercially viable trees that any landowner can own while remaining eligible for the kind of open-ended logging permit for which the water company has applied.

``We did aerial photography of every piece of land in the watershed,'' said Google engineer Rebecca Moore, a Summit Road-area resident opposing the plan. ``We used the absolute strictest definition of what timberland is, and they have too much.''

The findings could form the basis of a lawsuit against the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection if it approves the logging plan in the months ahead. At the very least, it sets up a battle of dueling computer mapping studies in an ``only in Silicon Valley'' kind of eco-showdown.

Matt Dias, a forester with Big Creek Lumber of Davenport, which San Jose Water has hired to log the property, said he has conducted his own exhaustive survey of the water company's property holdings. The company owns about 6,000 acres, with 2,002 acres of timberland, Dias said.

``I haven't seen their methods,'' Dias said. ``But we have digitized the property, we have spent weeks walking every single parcel, and we made a conservative estimate.''

The water company said it hopes to reduce fire risk on 1,002 acres of watershed lands it owns between Lexington Reservoir and Summit Road along the east side of Highway 17 near Los Gatos. The company has applied for a ``non-industrial timber management plan,'' to cut 20 percent of redwoods and Douglas fir trees under 12 inches in diameter and 40 percent of those trees over 24 inches in diameter during a 15-year period.

The company says the logging will reduce fire risk by thinning a forest that hasn't been logged since the 1800s. Neighbors fear noise, increased fire risk and landslides.

Wednesday night, 480 people showed up at the Santa Clara County government center in San Jose for a state forestry hearing on the plan, according to a tally by the fire marshal. Testimony continued for hours into the night. State forestry officials are expected to decide on the plan this spring.

The opponents' latest tactic involved enlisting the help of Kenneth Adelman, a Santa Cruz County resident who made millions when he founded TGV Software in the 1980s and later sold it to Cisco Systems. Adelman owns a helicopter and, in 2002, flew along the California coast, taking more than 12,000 digital photos.

He made national news in 2003 when he was sued by Streisand for $10 million after refusing to remove from his Web site an aerial photo of the Malibu cliffs that included Streisand's home.

A judge threw the suit out. Streisand was ordered to pay $155,000 to cover Adelman's legal fees.

Last February and July, Adelman flew Moore above the San Jose Water property. They took more than 700 photos, then she merged them with Google Earth software. Adelia Barber, a doctoral student in ecology at the University of California-Santa Cruz, then analyzed each photo, circling areas of redwoods and Douglas fir trees so the software could measure the exact area of each. At a minimum, the company has 2,754 acres of commercial timber, but it could have as many as 3,428 acres if surrounding areas where small saplings could grow are included, Barber said.

Moore said such technology has given regular people significant power in battling the government and large corporations.

``It levels the playing field,'' she said, noting that environmentalists from British Columbia, Australia and Minnesota have called her asking about it.

It will be up to state forestry officials to decide whose acreage totals are most accurate. The water company could sell some property to get under the 2,500-acre minimum, but Moore said ``we'd sharpen our pencils a little more'' and take additional surveys.


Contact Paul Rogers at or (408) 920-5045.
Original article may be found here



Terry Clark
February 1, 2007