CHESTER Logging in Humbug Valley has sparked a dispute over American Indian archaeological sites and whether damage from the Chips fire justified a virtual clearcut of the hillside above the valley.
Members of the Maidu Summit, a consortium of Maidu Indian tribal, nonprofit and grass-roots organizations, said Pacific Gas and Electric Co. launched the logging on 368 acres it owns in the Plumas County valley before members of the American Indian group received the notification required by state law.
The timber harvest, conducted under an emergency permit issued by the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, has compromised an ancient trail and a village site more than 4,000 years old, said Beverly Benner Ogle, vice chairwoman of the Maidu Summit.
"It broke my heart. It's so sad and disrespectful," said Ogle. She said her grandmother and ancestors lived in the valley 10 miles southwest of Lake Almanor.
PG&E officials have apologized to Ogle and other members of the Maidu group for the delayed notification. Although the utility followed all regulations, officials regret that the notices sent by the contract timber company were not received until after the logging began Oct. 1, said Paul Moreno, a PG&E spokesman.
"We have met with the tribe and expressed our sincere apologies," he said.
Moreno disputed Maidu claims that archaeological sites were destroyed: "No archaeological or culturally sensitive sites were impacted by the logging," he said.
Moreno cited an inspection by state forestry, U.S. Forest Service and PG&E archaeologists made after Ogle raised concerns over damage. In a Oct. 18 memo, Richard Jenkins, a state forestry archaeologist, said no site damage was observed or reported in the Oct. 10 review.
PG&E has suspended further logging in Humbug Valley until a Maidu representative has surveyed the area for archaeological sites and flagged them as off-limits. The increased scrutiny has resulted in identification of several sites previously not recorded, Moreno said.
Humbug Valley is one of nearly 1,000 separate parcels of PG&E lands designated for permanent conservation protection under a 2004 accord reached by the state Public Utilities Commission following the company's bankruptcy reorganization. The Pacific Forest and Watershed Lands Stewardship Council, a private nonprofit group created through the bankruptcy, is in the process of evaluating the Maidu Summit's application to assume ownership of the 2,300-acre valley and manage it using traditional American Indian techniques.
The Stewardship Council could make a decision as early as January, said Lorena Gorbet, who represents the United Maidu Nation on the Maidu Summit.
Noting this potential divestiture, Maidu Summit members and others have questioned PG&E's motives in removing the timber under an emergency permit.
During the Chips fire, which in August burned 75,000 acres between the Feather River Canyon and Lake Almanor, firefighters set backfires to ignite the underbrush and reduce the threat of more serious burning on the hillside above Humbug Valley. Some trees burned and others would have died but the forest stand would have recovered naturally, said Timothy F. Durkee, whose family has leased land in the valley for many years.
"I believe PG&E was overreaching in an attempt to increase profit from the land before its impending divestiture," Durkee said in a letter to the Stewardship Council.
A Plumas National Forest Review of Chips fire damage classified the Humbug hillside as a lower severity burn.
PG&E obtained a permit to log under emergency regulations when there was no emergency, said Edwin Wilson, a forester and attorney who represents the Maidu Summit.
Wilson estimated the income from the logging at $500,000.
PG&E has issued a four-point justification for the fire salvage logging that includes securing "a market for the burned timber." Moreno, however, said the logging was designed primarily to improve forest health and reduce insect damage by removing dead and dying trees. PG&E plans to plant conifer seedlings in the spring.
Jenkins said the entire area covered under the emergency permit had burned. "I did not see where (the timber operator) was removing unburned trees," he said in his two-page report.
But many Maidus remain disturbed by PG&E's timber harvest. "We were completely ignored in a process in which we have been ever present since 2003," said Kenneth Holbrook, a delegate to the Maidu Summit representing Tasmam Koyom. "They 'forgot' about the Indians when it came time to get their money's worth of timber."