Finding the Ecological - Economic Edge; Making it Work in forest Business (How did Big Creek Lumber Develop an Environmental Ethic The Has Survived Half a Century)

Homer T. "Bud" McCrary -

Partner, Big Creek Lumber Company

Saturday, October 01, 1994

How Did Big Creek Lumber Develop an Environmental Ethic That Has Survived Half a Century?

THE ANSWER TO THAT QUESTION is circuitous and lies deep in the history of our family. The best way I know to explain it unfolds chronologically.

It was 1867 when my great step granddad's family, including his young step son Joshua Grinnel arrived in California at Big Creek to build what was to become for the next century the family homestead. They did everything necessary to survive; first, they were stump farmers, digging out stumps make space to grow vegetables and fruit, then blacksmiths, teamsters, wagon-road builders, loggers, and in time "Did" Trumbo, our granddad, became a Santa Cruz County road superintendent.

Mother was born in 1904 at the family home on Big Creek and was raised there. She became a registered nurse, married dad in 1925, and I was born two years later. Frank came along in 1929 when the family moved to Santa Cruz and later to Felton. In 1937, the family returned to the family homestead on Big Creek, and other than the war years, all of the 3rd generation have remained in the area. However, some of the 4th generation have moved on. Our 90-year-old mother still lives in the old family home today.

The family was first introduced to the California Department of Forestry when dad built a home in Felton in 1935. The state built a new fire station next door, and the new district ranger and his family introduced us to Hume Lake in

Sequoia National Forest. Two years later dad built a summer cabin at Hume, which started our involvement with the U.S. Forest Service. For many years we also were involved with the California Department of Fish and Game because the hatchery on Big Creek was located three-eighths of a mile upstream from our home. These relationships have gone on in perpetuity. The hatchery closed in 1940 and the California Department of Forestry moved into the hatchery buildings a few months later due to the flood of '40. In the early 60s our homesite in Felton became the new location for the California Department of Forestry's Santa Cruz Mountain headquarters.

The year after the end of World War II, the family formed a partnership named Big Creek Timber Company with Frank McCrary, Sr., Homer Trumbo (mother's brother), Frank Jr., and myself. At first we operated a small portable saw mill on Mill and Scott creeks near the Big Creek home, and by fall we signed a contract with Theodore J. Hoover - Herbert Hoover's older brother - to harvest timber on Waddel Creek. The stumpage price then was $4.50 for Douglas fir and $6 for old-growth redwood. No limits by contract or regulation were set on where to cut or how much.

During that winter the partners purchased surplus military equipment and machinery to build a new sawmill on Waddel Creek four miles from the coast. It started with a capacity of 10,000 board feet per day, and before the end of a decade had reached 35,000.

All that brings me to the point as well as the question: How did Big Creek Lumber Company develop a concern for the environment and get into selective harvesting?

The answer lies in a combination of factors, all of which had their effect. First, naturally, is the kind of people we were at that time - backwoods. We were a family whose background, upbringing and traditions closely associated us with the forests, fish, and wildlife.

Our predecessor, on the Hoover Ranch, William Waddel, established in the 1 860s and 70s what later became a pattern on Waddel Creek: a selective economic cut of timber that was big enough but not too big to fell, log, and mill.

By 1946 the remaining merchantable timber on Hoover Ranch was primarily small old-growth redwood and Douglas fir with some very large trees that had an understory of second growth.

Nearly a century later, in 1953, Big Creek started to cut 30 to 40-inch DBH (diameter breast high) second growth which created a healthy residual stand of second growth plus some small residual old-growth trees

The result was that the Hoover ranch logged by Big Creek has purchased a large portion of the Hoover ranch, and the present-day hiking rails are among the most enjoyable parts of the park. Big Basin State Park is well stocked with thriving redwood and Douglas fir.

In 1946 we also started logging and road building with narrow-gauge cats, and soon realized we were making a small impact on the forest. However, when we hired a D-8 to build road and do some logging, we recognized just how much less the impact was. Precisely because of this early experience we have never purchased a large tractor.

In the 1950s we set up other work patterns that also illustrate our environmental concerns: from the very beginning when we began felling trees, we kept them from landing in stream beds. Still another way we avoided tearing up the land was the way we built main roads. We made a point of building them away from streams, and then pulled logs up and away, never along or into the streams.

Next we hired Dale Holderman, a graduate of Colorado State University with a degree in forest recreation. Dale became a sign)ficant member of the management team because he had a great concern for aesthetics and multiple use of the forest resource. He eventually became Big Creek's expert political forester which has enabled us to survive in this highly charged environmental center of the world.

Dale also developed in '67 a simple method of selective harvesting called the 60-40. It is a tool used to this day because it works. It is the cutting, marking, and selecting of 60% of trees over 18 inches, or an option is to take six out of ten trees.

The next innovation was in the mid-60s. We began experimenting with lopping slash in order to develop cost information and find out how practical lopping could be. The results were very positive: lopping not only produces good ground cover for planted seedlings but also reduces fire hazard, erosion and even increases the decomposition of slash. Within a decade lopping became the rule for the company.

On average Big Creek Timber excavates only 7 1/2% of a harvest area. We minimize soil movement by careful planning of skid trails, placement of slash, and well-placed drainage facilities. When tractor yarding we pull bull lines farther than other operators - another technique that reduces the amount of excavating.

Further, Big Creek has always had a partner or forester lay out road systems, bridges' landings and drainage facilities. Other companies use siderods, logging engineers or others to oversee operations, sometimes resulting in less concern for environmental consequences.

In short, Big Creek is not as cost-effective as others because we take more steps and time to get the job done. The operations are very carefully executed and produce a minimal impact on the land and environment as a whole.

The present-day public has great concerns about the health of our forests as habitat for fish and wildlife. Yet protection is given to exotic creatures and plants like ravens, European wild boars or pigs, pampas grass, and French broom plants that have major negative impacts on forest lands and habitats in the Santa Cruz mountains. Some people might include timber harvesting as a negative impact.

Other major long-term impacts are fire, wind storms, snow storms, seismic activity, insects, disease, flood, super saturation of soil, large land slides lack of fire and decreasing water supply.

Big Creek bought the Butano tract in San Mateo County in 1991 because we felt it was a great place to grow trees for future use. Together with our 500 plus acres, it gave us close to 4,800 acres of contiguous forest in San Mateo County

A year later, however, came the protests and on June 16, 1992, a suit was filed and protests began. Activity escalated. Why? Protests are almost always timed to influence courts, and there is one single person in Woodside who has kept the Butano issue alive. Over the years, this one person has launched many attacks on Big Creek through radical environmental organizations. She told the San Mateo County Planning Commission 26 years ago on Kings Grove property, "If Big Creek Lumber continues its current logging practices, the hills of San Mateo County will look like the hills of Lebanon."

Today, I invite you to see for yourself just how wrong she has been. There are young grove redwoods that have been harvested only twice on this property and many are four to five feet in diameter. This is selective harvesting.

We try to initiate solutions before regulatory bodies impose their solutions to perceived environmental problems - such as 60/40 lopping, a temporary hold on three-acre exemptions, conversions, etc. Moreover, Big Creek has always tried to meet our opposition face-to-face to understand why they oppose what we are doing or propose to do. When we meet with reasonable people we can usually work out a resolution to their concerns. If we meet with unreasonable groups or individuals such as Earth First, we can at least be aware of their attitude or position, and that helps.

When we meet with large groups of overt protesters there are usually two or three organizers or leaders and the rest are followers. If we spend considerable time rapping with these folks about our kind of forestry and the principles we live by, they likely begin listening. Once we get the attention of the followers they start to see us as real people and not some faceless corporation. At this point many of the followers often lose enthusiasm and eventually stop protesting.

In 1971 I went to a Sierra Club meeting in the town of Skylonda. This was my first exposure to the term, "body count." A Sierra Club staff member said "We want 100 bodies in Sacramento tomorrow, dead or alive." This was shocking to me and I have not forgotten this principle when dealing with political groups.

Actually, the strongest impact on my environmental understanding is Mother Nature in action, producing traumatic events.

During my short time, 67 years on this good earth, I have been involved in the following events, some major:

1940 - A 100-year flood knocked out bridges and an upstream fish hatchery. The debris flow on Little Creek reached 30 feet deep.

1948 - The Pine Mountain fire took out 19,000 acres. Burning or damaging hundreds of thousands of young redwoods. During the fire, three of us were trapped for seven hours and assumed lost. Obviously we survived.

1950 - Hein Hammond ridge fire, east fork of Waddel Creek, destroyed a young growth forest.

1955 - Another pre-Christmas 100-year flood washed out most bridges including all bridges on the Hoover ranch and two bridges on the family homestead. The debris flow down the canyon was more than 50 feet deep.

1960 - On January 2, a fire started in Gazos Creek, eventually covering 2,500-acres, causing a great deal of timber damage. The humidity was low and compression-heated winds from the continental air mass - equivalent to the South's Santa Ana winds - caused the temperature to go to 80 degrees at 4 a.m.


1962 - On October 12: A strong Pacific Coast windstorm created a fire that destroyed my home. A piece of a 4x4 was all that was left.

1974 - January 8: Snowstorm. Millions of tan oaks and Madrones were uprooted or broken .

1980 - November: Four-hundred acres on east fork of Waddel Creek Cliffs. NE compression heated winds.

1982 - January 4: Another 100-year flood caused thousands of landslides all over the Santa Cruz mountains. There were many threats of lawsuits against Big Creek Lumber because people thought our cutting caused the landslides, but none actually materialized.


When you travel through the Santa Cruz mountains, look for evidence of these and other similar natural and man-caused events. They have shaped the way the forests developed. Anything that has been done in the forest is there to be seen. Tapes cannot be erased or documents shredded to conceal what has been done or not done.

The evidence of good forestry will be there for generations to come. I hope you can enjoy the beauty of our vital, productive forests in the Santa Cruz mountains, and know there's a lumber company that's tried very hard to have a positive impact on this planet.

Introducing: Homer T. "Bud" McCrary

Bud McCrary is the Vice President and Co-owner of the Big Creek Lumber Company, Santa Cruz County, California. His family has been continuously working the farms and forest of this area since 1867. Bud grew up at the family home in Big Creek and graduated from the local High School. After serving in the Navy during W.W. II he returned to work in the family lumber and forest business.

In addition to their sawmill business, the company today owns and manages nearly 8000 acres of coastal second growth redwood forest. This operation has recently emerged as a prized and well cited model of how to organize and practice environmentally sensitive yet economically viable sustainable forestry. They have long used a locally adapted system of patch and selective cutting to regenerate their stands while maintaining a generally continuous forest cover. Special attention is given to minimizing logging damage and protecting the quality of the streams; a successful coho salmon and steelhead hatchery and habitat restoration program thrives in Big Creek.

Its never been easy to balance the conflicting values and agenda of the many forest constituencies in Santa Cruz County. Bud has spent as much time in public meetings, the courts and leading field tours to explain what they do as he has in managing the forest. Patience, persistence and an enduring belief that they are doing the right thing helps Bud stay the course.

His efforts were recognized by being nominated and subsequently awarded the Francis H. Raymond Award for outstanding contributions to forestry in California in 1991. His story was highlighted in an April 1, 1993 feature article in the Wall Street Journal.