Anyone entering the mill at Big Creek Lumber, south of Pescadero, is immediately hit by a sensory overload — a cacophony of saws, the rattle of conveyor belts and a prominent pine fragrance.
A freshly cut redwood enters the mill and, in a flurry of cuts, the tree is julienned into a pile of boards with some leftover scraps for potting soil.
About 100,000 board feet of timber are churned out of the lumberyard each day — or about enough wood to extend a single two-by-four about 21 miles. All those redwoods are chopped down from the verdant coastal forests from Half Moon Bay south to San Luis Obispo.
The trees are abundant, and demand is nearly endless, but Big Creek officials fear for the company’s future nonetheless. Here on the Peninsula, Big Creek controls the last remaining mill, giving them, in some ways, a local monopoly on lumber production. But company officials refer to that privilege as more like being the last dinosaur.
Over recent years, the lumber company officials say they’ve watched as thousands of acres of coastal hills have been “locked up” through conservation acquisitions and easements. The lumber company is not celebrating a new $300 million Measure AA bond approved by voters earlier this month to expand and maintain protected wilderness under the Midpeninsula Regional Open Space District. Big Creek officials fear the new pool of money could put the remaining open timberlands in the crosshairs of an expanding greenbelt up the Santa Cruz Mountains.
Back in 1980, California was self-sufficient for its lumber products, pointed out Big Creek spokesman Bob Berlage. But today more than 80 percent of the wood is brought in from out of state, mostly from Canada. The net effect, he says, is that Californians are tightening control of local resources and outsourcing the ecological damage elsewhere.
“There’s a huge environmental impact from transporting timber thousands of miles,” he said. “It’s counterproductive to run the local timber company out of business.”
It would stand to reason that a timber company would have misgivings about conservation because it goes against profits. But Big Creek is unique in this regard. The company has a sterling reputation for conservation. Since the 1960s, the company’s co-founders, brothers Homer and Frank McCrary, have adhered to a practice of logging only a fraction of the redwoods on their properties, giving the forest more than a decade to recover before the lumberjacks return. Back when they started, the only requirement for lumberjacks was to bring along a shovel in case a fire started, said Homer McCrary.
“If you owned the trees, you could just cut them all down,” he said. “But people were getting very upset with clear-cutting … we had to come up with a method of harvesting that was environmentally sound.”
In fact, the company is largely credited with helping create the concept of sustainable forest management back when the industry lacked regulations. McCrary later was one of the founding directors of the Land Trust of Santa Cruz County, and he remains on the group’s advisory board. And he may be the only lumber company owner to have led Sierra Club hikes through his timberland. That background has given the company high marks among environmental groups.
“Big Creek is certainly the best conservation-minded operator that I’ve ever worked with,” said Paul Ringgold, vice president for land stewardship at the Peninsula Open Space Trust. “It’s a profit-making company, but they’ve demonstrated the highest ethical regard for the work they do.”
“Big Creek was a pioneer in trying to do it the right way,” echoed Diane Talbert, board president of the Sempervirens Fund. “In some ways Big Creek has more knowledge of these forests than anyone else because they’ve been dealing with it for so many years.”
As the largest and some of the oldest trees in the world, redwoods continue to hold a special place in the hearts of many Californians. Decades of clear-cutting of old-growth forests made the redwoods an icon of preservation efforts.
Both Big Creek officials and multiple environmental groups say things have changed since lumberjacks were perceived as the scourge of the sequoias. State and federal protections now require approved timber harvesting plans before any redwoods can be chopped down. No more than 50 percent of the trees can be harvested on any plot of land. Big Creek officials say they typically harvest only six trees per acre.
Despite their commitment to sustaining forests, Big Creek officials say they are still made out to be a bugaboo looking to ax down the forests. Berlage points to maps put out by the Sempervirens Fund that mark the company’s 8,000 acres of forestland as a goal for future acquisition. Many other private landowners who used to allow Big Creek to harvest on their land have now signed conservation easements, he said. When Big Creek employees watch things like that, they can’t help but be concerned about the long-term viability of the business, he said.
“They’ll say nice things about us, but they’ll still use the issue of timber harvesting as a fundraising tool,” Berlage said. “There’s people out there who want to run us out of business. It’s as difficult for us as it ever was.”
Asked about the maps, Talbert of Sempervirens said they weren’t specifically looking to acquire the land, but rather instill “common values” of preservation on the properties.
In a true paradigm shift, many conservation groups are now indicating they want to partner up with the lumber company. Sempervirens is currently in talks with POST and Big Creek to allow selective tree harvesting along a portion of the San Vincente property, about 8,500 acres near Davenport.
“I would say that’s our first big shift in doing something like a timber harvesting program,” Talbert said. “We definitely see a place where we can both stand side by side.”
Similarly, MROSD is currently drafting a conceptual plan to also allow timber harvesting on its forest properties. The open-space agency would soon launch a pilot timber project of its own, explained Kirk Lenington, MROSD natural resources manager.
Nonetheless, Big Creek officials remain concerned those gestures may not be enough to sustain the company and its 200 employees for the long term.
“Any potentially harvestable forestland that is locked up is a threat to our company’s long-term viability,” Berlage wrote in an email. “It doesn’t really matter which conservation organization is involved. Locked up is locked up.”