Watersheds, Landscapes, Biodiversity, Fire & Forest Management

Henry Alden

Thursday, October 01, 1992

I want to thank all of you for coming tonight. I was surprised and honored at being selected as the S.J. Hall Lecturer this year. I can't help remembering that in this very room I was once offered a job by Gordon Robinson of the Sierra Club. Where would I be now if I had accepted? The Goldman award dinner perhaps.

I would like to discuss three main topics tonight. First, I would like to talk about the way Michigan-Cal is trying to cope with the complex new rules and concerns swirling around forestry in California.

Second, I would like to comment on the political battles over forestry in California. All the combatants seem to share similar visions, but we have been fighting so long we don't know how to stop.

Finally, I would like to talk about the recent Cleveland Fire. The intensity and magnitude of the fire made me realize that most of our activities are trivial in comparison.

Before all that though, I want to orient you geographically to the forests I care for and give a brief history of Michigan-Cal. Michigan-Cal owns 77,000 acres of mixed conifer forest in the central Sierra. It has been managed as one unit since 1889. We are two years older than the Forest Service. 97% of our ownership has been harvested once. We are harvesting the second forest now and planting the third. We have been doing this a long time.


The early foresters faced and overcame enormous physical challenges to harvest timber and provide wood products to a growing nation. Today the challenges are mostly political. Being involved in the initiative battle in 1990 and the forestry accord legislation last year, I got a painful education into public opinion and perception.

We learned that we are dealing with an urban population that is detached from the forest. Most of their information about forestry comes from the press, the environmental industry's literature and Walt Disney movies.

Most people do not have the time or interest to try to understand complex resource issues. But they are truly concerned and feel an almost spiritual attachment to the forest. Our polling told us that a majority of Californians believe there is something wrong in the forest and they want it fixed. This concern is being translated into ever increasing regulations on logging.

As foresters we are trying to find ways to adhere to these new regulations and address the public's concerns. In the past we made forestry decisions about specific stands of timber but did not pay much attention to the bigger picture. The idea of trying to evaluate our activities as they fit into a larger landscape or watershed is only a few years old.

By chance, we began creating a framework for doing this about years ago when we started clear cutting on the company's lands. We needed a database on the even-aged units to help us keep track of areas that needed treatments. It became more important as we began dealing with clearcut adjacency; trying to lay out a rational schedule of harvests is the Rubic's Cube of forestry. As the concept of cumulative effects progressed from theory to regulation, landscape modeling streamlined the calculations. Now, as we come to grips with biodiversity, late seral forests, corridors and who knows what else, a landscape view of the forest is essential.


I need to digress a little to talk about the technical part of taking a landscape view of the resource. A good geographic information system is essential. There are seven basic data layers chat are needed:

1. Topography

2. Hydrology

3. Roads

4. Soils

5. Ownership

6. Vegetation - with enough information to allow modeling

7. Management history database

These seven layers allow us to model and display most of the issues that have confronted us recently. We have gotten very good at making maps and tables to answer specific questions.

  • We can combine soils and topography to get erosion hazard rating.
  • We can develop cumulative effects numbers for a watershed.
  • We can generate acres of different wildlife habitat types by watersheds.
  • We can display the location and condition of streamside protection zones.
  • We can model treatments and vegetation development over time.

The GIS technology has done a great job of creating and displaying forest landscapes. It is particularly helpful when doing timber harvest plans and responding to specific data requests.

Our maps have also worked at an emotional level with the public. The public is concerned that we have a short-term perspective and only want to cut out and get out. It seems strange to me chat after 103 years in the community we need to prove our commitment, but chat is the case. The maps have helped convinced people chat we are serious, committed to the long term and competent.

The maps have also added a qualitative aspect to planning that I did not expect. We are basically visual creatures. I can look at tables and graphs all day and end up feeling a little dizzy. But a perspective view of wildlife habitat types in a watershed leaves me with a better understanding of what the condition of the watershed is. I believe visual perspective views of the resource will become an important part of decision making in the future.


This descriptive approach, however, had limitations. As we learned from our polling, the public wants to be assured that the forest is healthy. This is a different and much more complex problem than describing what is there. We realized that describing the landscape did not tell us whether things were okay or not. We decided we needed to monitor key resources in the forest to help us make a better assessment about the health of our forest.

This caused us to look for indicators we could observe to help us understand what effect our activities might be having on our four most important resources: soil productivity, water quality and the biodiversity of plants and animals. We evaluated many indicators over the years and settled on five main ones:

Soil loss -- Universal Soil Loss Equation
Aquatic insects -- Per suggestions of Dr. Don Erman
Water Chemistry -- EPA drinking-water standards
Terrestrial Vertebrates -- Per suggestions of Dr. Reg Barrett
Vegetation -- CACTOS-compatible data

We believe that by monitoring these elements of the forest over time we will be able do a better job of managing the forest. If these indicators do not change much, we will feel that the fabric of the forest is strong. If we detect trends that are bad, we can adjust our logging soon enough to avoid serious problems. We hope they will serve as our canary in the mine.

Collecting this information was voluntary, expensive and risky. If we had discovered something wrong, it could have been very damaging to Michigan-Cal. But we felt it was our responsibility to understand, as best we could, the impacts we were having on the forest. We conducted these studies openly. We requested and received help from many sources.

As we collected this information we were concerned that we would discover some large problem. The results, to our great relief, seemed good. We were eager to declare our forest healthy, the fabric intact. We submitted the results to various experts but were confronted with a certain academic reluctance to declare something good or bad. The best we can do is describe the current condition and use it as a benchmark to compare future measurements against. I will say, however, that no one has found anything particularly disturbing in the results of our studies.


The problem with this landscape approach to forestry is that it has not helped us avoid the collapse in log supply that faces us.

The timber sale program on the national forests in California dropped to one third of the historic level of 1,700 MMBF. The volume will fall lower still this year. Only 574 MMBF of merchantable timber was sold in fiscal 1992. An estimated 3,800 MMBF was grown. The timber sold was less than the estimated mortality. The timber program is collapsing under the weight of congressional mandates and environmentalist appeals and lawsuits.

I had hoped that our landscape view and careful monitoring would ease the concerns and help us reach a consensus about the future. Our efforts to enlist the Forest Service, El Dorado County, environmentalists, and various other interested parties to work together on landscape analysis and planning has not succeeded.

I first tried to form the El Dorado Geographic Society in 1990. This was to include all the interested parties in the Rubicon, South Fork American and Consumnes River watersheds. I got a lukewarm response. Even the Forest Service showed little interest in working together. I was told that if I really wanted the Forest Service involved I needed a good acronym, so I changed the name to El Dorado Geographic Endeavor (EDGE).

Still no response. The environmental community, contrary to its rhetoric, has been reluctant to participate. The only real cooperator to date is the Sacramento Municipal Utility District (SMUD). CDF and the Forest Service are beginning to show interest. I always thought we in the timber industry were the entrenched reactionaries.

The landscape approach to forest management is the best way that I've seen yet to study and monitor the sustainability, biodiversity and water quality in a watershed. I'd like to see it used as a basis for making a sustainable forest policy for California. But that's not going to happen unless the environmentalists give it their seal of approval and agree to work with us.

They don't seem to want to do this. Perhaps this is because careful policy-making is an uncomfortable role for them. Up to now, environmentalists have been very successful with political and legal efforts to stop various projects. They have relatively little experience in planning and implementing projects.

I had a meeting with a local group, Friends Aware of Wildlife Needs (FAWN), that has long criticized my activities. I asked them what exactly they wanted. Their answer was, "less." I told them they had achieved their goal.

The FAWN group recently appealed the Shingle Mill Gulch Timber Sale. The sale area was originally private property that had been mined in the gold rush, railroad logged in the 1940's, and recently salvaged. It is not ancient forest. It is one of the least sensitive areas on the Eldorado National Forest. The sale was first designed to avoid spotted owl habitat areas (SOHA). It was then redone with a 50% volume reduction to meet the cumulative effects analysis (CEA) process for the spotted owl.

The CEA process is the result of a threatened suit by the Natural Resources Defense Council. The CEA review eliminated the dense stands. Now the Virner report on the spotted owl recommends staying out of open stands. This would eliminate the rest of the volume in the sale. FAWN and the Tulare County Audubon Society are appealing the sale asking the Forest Service to implement the Virner Report. The cumulative effect of the SOHA system, the CEA process and the Virner Report essentially stops all timber sales on the national forests in the Sierra.

If stopping all logging is the real goal, fine. But FAWN say it is not. They have a vision of a rural economy that includes timber harvesting and milling. I share this vision. But to achieve it, we must work together to propose projects that will work.

Over the last couple of decades, the environmental community has earned a lot of political capital. They have been empowered by the public and the courts to decide what is okay and what is not. But with this power comes responsibility. It's no longer enough for environmentalists to say "less"; they must now come up with ideas about how and what and where.

"Less" timber activity has meant higher lumber prices and unemployment. I think that the public is starting to expect noticeable improvement in the environment in return.

I gave Indiana Congressman Jim Jontz a forestry tour around Blodgett Forest last year. He was the leading advocate of creating huge ancient forest reserves in the west. I told him his tactics were not just changing the course of a ship, but that he was blowing holes below the waterline. It was the only thing I said all day that seemed to surprise him. He was responding to a real public desire to protect the forest, but the public is fickle. I told him the same people who are urging him on now will be ready to dump him when they can not buy a 2X4 at a reasonable price. He lost his seat in congress last month.

I am afraid the same fate awaits the environmental industry. If they do not begin working with the rest of us to find a way out of this mess, their epitaph will read, "They could have improved the world, but they didn't."


My perceptions of forests and forestry changed dramatically on Tuesday September 29th, of this year. At about noon, the Cleveland fire started near Riverton. It burned 24,000 acres in two days, including 10,000 acres of Michigan-Cal land. This was my first big fire and I learned many things.

First and foremost a fire of this magnitude is beyond human control. Second, catastrophic fires are natural events chat have always occurred in the Sierra and will occur in the future. We are not responsible and we do not necessarily need to mitigate the impacts. Third, a fire-based ecosystem, like the mixed-conifer forest, is tough and resilient enough to recover from any form of management we have been able to think up.

I have decided foresters and environmentalists are control freaks. Foresters want a "managed forest," a form of agriculture, I suppose. Environmentalists feel that only they understand how complex and delicate the forest is. Their understanding transcends science. Environmentalists have become a sort of control gate through which no project can pass unless they deem it harmonic.

The Cleveland Fire mocked both of us.

My regulated forest is a thing of the past. I will struggle again to bring the forest into line with our long-term sustained yield goals. But on any given day another fire could destroy those plans and there is little I can do about it.

I defy any environmentalist to stand in the middle of the Cleveland fire and lecture about the delicate fabric of the Sierra forests.

The impact of the fire was more intense than any clearcut I have ever seen.

There are no streamside protection zones left.

There is no shade canopy ova the streams.

The maximum clearcut size has been exceeded by 23,880 acres.

There is no duff layer to protect the soil. The cumulative effect in terms of equivalent roaded acres approaches 80% in the South Fork Silver Creek watershed.

There are no late seral forests or corridors.

The diversity of seral stages is gone.

Everything burned:

clearcuts, ancient forests, thinned forests, unthinned forests, brush fields, selection cuttings and under burned areas.

Everything burned. And this was a natural event. It is probably even essential for the continuation of the mixed-conifer ecosystem. I believe the Sierran forests are tough and resilient.

As I stood in the burn area I was humbled by the power of the event. I tried and failed to figure out how I could mechanically simulate a catastrophic fire of that magnitude. If fire is a natural and essential part of the ecosystem we have been far too delicate in our attempts to simulate the natural cycles of the forest.

The fire also has demonstrated to us the impact of uncertainty on long- term investments in forestry in California. We are not required to plant trees after a fire. So we must decide whether to spend $2,500,000 to plant and care for 4,000,000 trees. Over the last several years we have been getting a message that we may not be allowed to cut trees in the future.

It is very likely that in the next few years logging in the stream zones will be prohibited. Maybe we should only plant outside the stream zone and let the Department of Fish and Game manage the streams. Maybe we should not plant at all and let nature take its course. Maybe the state should pay to plant if they want to control rotation age and harvest flow. This is an example of how regulations are having the opposite effect of what was intended.

We have, in fact, decided to replant, but I doubt that it is a good business decision.


Our landscape studies, monitoring and the Cleveland Fire have led me to believe that we are not on the brink of any environmental disaster in the Sierra.

The Sierra is not in peril. What is in peril is maintaining a flow of wood products from our forests to meet the needs of society.

If we can not learn to work together we will all fail.

Introducing: Henry Alden

Henry AldenHenry Alden is a 1976 Master of Forestry graduate from Berkeley and has spent his professional career with Michigan-California Lumber Company as its Resource Manager. He started out as a forester and became resource manager within four short years.

Henry is at the forefront of a visionary generation of forest resource managers who are learning how to invest in, and produce, commercial timber while meeting social concerns for wildlife habitat, environmental quality, and sustainable forest ecosystems.

On one hand he keeps a sharp eye on profitability and efficiency, tracking the value productivity of all stands in the some 80,000 acres that the company manages in El Dorado County. As a survivor of this fall's Cleveland fire, his company must now decide on its level of investment to regenerate 10,000 burned acres.

On the other hand, at Henry's urging, Michigan-Cal has long been monitoring erosion and sedimentation and has recently obtained the technology to describe spatially the wildlife habitats on company forests. He has been the prime mover to start a county-wide cooperative, the "El Dorado Geographic Society", to establish a Geographic Information System that facilitates the calculation, projection and monitoring of forest ecosystems on a regional basis. This is greatly facilitating the ability of forest owners to consider wildlife and watershed cumulative effects over large landscapes.

A native of Los Angeles, Henry makes his home in Camino with his wife, the former Lori Hoffman, and their two children, Emily, 11, and Margaret, 9. He did his undergraduate work also at Berkeley, graduating with a B.S. in forestry in 1974.