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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Utilities Timber Land for Sale

Air Date: Week of

One place timber companies may find trees ready to harvest is on land owned by electric utility companies. Thousands of acres of utility owned property are expected to be sold off in the coming year as power companies get lean and mean in the ramp up to the deregulation of their industry. From the Sierra Mountains of California, Reese Erlich explains.


KNOY: One place timber companies may find trees ready to harvest is on land owned by electric utility companies. Thousands of acres of utility-owned property are expected to be sold off as power companies get lean and mean in the ramp up to deregulation of their industry. From the Sierra Mountains of California, Reese Erlich explains.

(Running water)

ERLICH: the South Fork of the Stanislaus River rolls gently through the Sierra Mountains, near Yosemite Park, on its way to a hydroelectric station. the power plant is owned by Pacific Gas and Electric, as are hundreds of acres of nearby forest. Thousands of old growth trees here help hold water and prevent silt from flowing into the hydroelectric turbines. Environmentalists, like John Buckley of the Central Sierra Environmental Resource Center, say PG&E has been a good steward of the forest.

BUCKLEY: We've been pleased with the way that PG&E has managed their lands. They have had some logging that has taken place, but they have not done extensive clear-cutting or aggressive logging.

ERLICH: But this era of benign forest management may be ending, at least for some PG&E land. California is deregulating its electricity market, and PG&E will no longer be able to pass on to ratepayers all the costs of maintaining the forests.

SESSA: PG&E is getting ready for the competitive era by cutting our costs, reducing our assets.

ERLICH: Bill Sessa is a PG&E spokesperson.

SESSA: One of the ways that we can make ourselves more competitive is focusing on our main line of business, which is delivering electricity and gas, and selling off assets that don't directly help us in that business.

ERLICH: And that could mean selling off a lot of land. PG&E is the second largest landowner in California. In 1995, the latest year for which there are figures, the company sold off 10,000 acres of prime timber land, a pace likely to continue for several years. Environmentalists worry that the new owners won't take as good care of it as PG&E.


ERLICH: Environmentalist John Buckley walks onto a parcel of land owned by Sierra Pacific Industries, California's largest timber company. the tract has been clear-cut. It's completely barren except for 5 small trees. Sierra Pacific has bought some PG&E forest land and is expected to buy more. This isn't one of those plots, but Mr. Buckley says it is representative of SPI's approach o its new acquisitions.

BUCKLEY: they have done more clear-cutting than was ever done by the private lumber companies, and they also have taken trees that were left intentionally by the previous companies. So from the environmental community's perspective, SPI is very aggressive, and in many cases has less sensitivity to the needs of wildlife and watersheds.

ERLICH: SPI officials failed to return several requests for an interview about their acquisition of electric company lands. But PG&E's Bill Sessa says SPI or any other buyer can't just cut down trees willy-nilly.

SESSA: They clearly also have a responsibility to balance the finances on the one hand, so it makes economic sense to buy it, with environmental stewardship. They still have restrictions imposed on them by the same government regulators who governed us when we owned it. And that's where, I think, the safeguards are.

(Wind and bird calls)

YASSA: The government regulations actually don't go far enough to protect these forests lands.

ERLICH: Sammy Yassa, a scientist with the Natural Resources Defense Council, doesn't accept PG&E's assurances. He says the forests around hydroelectric dams are especially sensitive, and that there's a particular public interest in ensuring that they are well-managed.

(Footfalls and trickling water)

YASSA: These lands are crucial areas that protect watershed. This is a special circumstance, which requires a special level of protection.

(More footfalls and water)

YASSA: The roots of these trees provide sort of a natural sponge, which filters and regulates the amount of water that flows. This serves as a natural faucet so you don't have flooding. And again, you remove these forests at a rate that's too high, you encourage flooding.

ERLICH: The challenges presented by PG&E's land sales are likely to crop up in other states as energy deregulation sweeps across the country. Figures on exactly how much forest land utilities own are hard to come by, but PG&E's large holdings are not unique. Environmentalists worry that utilities will sell off large tracts of forest to timber companies and developers. Lou Milford is an attorney with the Conservation Law Foundation of New England.

MILFORD: We have lands that have been generally unused for many, many years because the utilities had been essentially absentee landlords of thousands of acres of forest land. But as the utilities sell off assets, there probably will be increasing pressure to use those lands for other development purposes.

ERLICH: But Mr. Milford says there are good models for handling these transfers, including one in which his own organization played a role. Several years ago a New England utility agreed to significant protections for forest land surrounding one of its hydroelectric plants. Now the company is selling both the dam and the forest to another utility. Mr. Milford says those restrictions on land use are binding on the new owner and any future owners.

MILFORD: We've got limitations on use of lands near waterways. We have limitations on clear-cutting on these lands. We have prohibition of timber cutting in protected soils. We really have efforts to control the way these lands will be used, to try to keep them essentially in the state that they have been in for decades.

ERLICH: Mr. Milford says this shows that prospective buyers will accept restrictions on the use of land surrounding hydroelectric plants. Ironically, the new owner in this case is none other than Pacific Gas & Electric.

MILFORD: Perhaps, if PG&E is reminded of what it did in the East, maybe it will take a closer look at the same issue in the West.

ERLICH: For Living on Earth, I'm Reese Erlich.

(Music up and under)

KNOY: In Los Angeles a move to ban leaf blowers ignites a class struggle between gardeners and some homeowners. the story is next on Living on Earth.



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