By Lupe Molina
As spring approaches, farm workers in California will begin their annual activities that usually lead to a fall harvest.
One segment of California’s agriculture industry, tree farmers, will do their own planting, not for this fall’s harvest but for a harvest to be conducted someday, likely by their grandchildren.
As California celebrates Arbor Week in March, people are urged to plant trees to help beautify their communities. In our urban areas, trees provide needed shade from summer’s heat and help prevent erosion.
In our rural areas, trees are planted, nurtured and harvested to help provide wood products that we use everyday in our homes - and to build the home itself.
While California’s forestry industry usually makes news when it harvests trees, the industry is, in fact, the biggest tree planter in the state.
Workers for California’s forestry companies plant an average of seven seedlings for every tree harvested on the millions of acres of privately owned forestland. Each year, forestry companies plant about 30 million trees - that’s nearly one tree for every Californian.
By planting these trees, these mostly family-owned companies make an investment in their land, growing wood for the homes and needs of future California generations.
Unfortunately, it is getting harder and harder for these companies to make investments in the future, as the restrictions on harvesting increase, even on privately owned land. Harvesting on our vast publicly owned lands has virtually ceased, leaving these forests overgrown and at great danger for wildfire, as we have seen with tragic results.
While these actions against harvesting create unhealthy forests, these actions also create unhealthy consequences for families, particularly those in economically depressed rural areas.
Nearly two years ago, the company where I worked for more than 30 years closed down, unable to continue under the burden of doing business in California, particularly forestry. Without trees being harvested in our publicly-owned forests, there wasn’t enough to keep our sawmill operating. The result: 120 workers, many Latino, lost their jobs.
Recently, major sawmills in Tuolumne County and Humboldt County laid off workers until later this spring because of the lack of harvested trees.
Ironically, California’s demand for harvested trees increases. Every year, the average Californian consumes the equivalent of a 100-foot tree. Yet workers in this industry, despite its commitment to replant and grow new trees, are stymied in their efforts to make a living through responsible forestry.
If harvesting trees hurt our forests, it would be reasonable to stop harvesting and accept the loss of jobs. But when you don’t harvest trees, the forest grows unnaturally thick and unhealthy - with 300 or 400 trees on an acre that can only sustain 30 or 40 trees.
The Latino community saw this first-hand in the San Bernardino Mountains, where harvesting ceased for 20 years - laying the foundation for an unhealthy forest. Trees in the San Bernardino Mountains, starved of water and nutrients because of the crowding, fell victim to bark beetles that killed the forest. Ultimately, the forest literally burst into flames in October 2003. Without the trees, the mountains turned into mudslides that claimed even more lives.
It’s time, instead, to promote management of our forests. While Arbor Week reminds us that we must plant trees, we also must harvest trees.
No farm succeeds by being left alone to grow wild. Similarly, it is time for policymakers and citizens to support efforts to care for our forests and ensure their health for the next generation.
Lupe Molina was yard supervisor for the former Wetsel-Oviatt Lumber Company and is assisting the Auburn-based Forest Foundation in its educational efforts. For more information, visit www.calforestfoundation.org.