Timber Industry Influence
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How Come the Timber Industry Controls California Forestry Policy?
Vince Taylor, Ph.D
May, 2005

An Economically Microscopic Midget

I pose the following question as a mystery that needs explanation: How does an economically microscopic midget effectively control public policy over forests that cover 25 percent of California's land area and whose management significantly affects the quality of life of most Californians.

The disparity between the timber industry's economic importance and its political power is staggering. The timber industry accounts for less than one one-thousandth of the state's total economic production.[1] Yet, for as far back as anyone can remember and right to the present day, the timber industry has dominated California forestry policy.

From a public-interest standpoint, something is radically wrong with our government when a miniscule economic interest controls the governance of California's forests. Why have the public's repeatedly expressed concerns about environmental protection been essentially powerless in the area of forestry? Why have environmental activists and environmentally concerned legislators, supported by millions of Californians, been completely ineffective in countering the influence of the economically tiny timber industry? What can be done to change this situation?

These are questions that need serious consideration and answers. The ability of an industry to  easily overcome the concerns and will of the people appears to be widespread. The timber industry represents an extreme example of this phenomena.

The Unbroken Record of Industry Influence

As far back as anyone can remember, the timber industry has dominated forestry policy in every state administration, whether Republican or Democratic. Top forestry positions in the California Department of Forestry (CDF), which enforces laws and regulations governing timber harvesting,  are regularly filled with people from big timber companies or trade groups.

Since the Z'berg-Nejedly Act of 1973 gave the Board of Forestry power to approve forestry regulations and set policies for the Department of Forestry, persons allied with the timber industry people have dominated the Board. For over 30 years, Democratic and Republican governors alike have made appointments that have given the timber industry a majority vote – ignoring the law that five out of the nine members shall represent the public interest and only three shall represent the forest products industry.

These timber-focused appointees have effectively nullified every legislative attempt to elevate environmental and ecological concerns in forestry management, including most notably the path-breaking Z'berg-Nejedly Forestry Practice Act of 1973. This law mandated that all commercial forests be managed for long-term maximum sustained production. The Board and CDF have failed to implement the intent of this law, allowing timber production to decline precipitously, salmon streams to become clogged with sediment, and forest landscapes to be denuded by clearcutting.

California harvested less than 40 percent as much timber in 2003 as in 1978. Timber production in Mendocino County, formerly one of the largest redwood producing counties in the state, has fallen over 80 percent. These declines could not have occurred if the Z'berg-Nejedly Act had been enforced.

The governor's recent veto of a moderate bill to reform management of state forests shows that big timber is still in full control of the administration.

How Does the Timber Industry Succeed?

The unbroken dominance of the timber industry is remarkable given its miniscule economic size. How has the timber industry been able to succeed?

This is a question that needs answers from people more familiar with the history and details than I, but I offer a few observations:

  • Even though the timber industry is relatively tiny, it still amounts to over a billion dollars per year. If the industry devotes one-percent of its revenues to buying political influence, it has over $10 million per year to spend.
  • I have heard, but do not have the figures, that timber interests have been major contributors to gubernatorial candidates of both parties.
  • The timber industry was historically much more important than now, and political relationships built up in the past tend to endure. It has strong lobbying relationships with agriculture and some labor groups and is part of the larger business lobby.
  • Historically, our state has treated forests primarily as resources to be exploited, and schools of forestry have focused on producing timber harvesting professionals, not forest ecologists. These timber professionals staff both industry and government forestry positions, creating an almost unquestioned bias toward timber production.

The success of the timber industry must also reflect a failure of the public and its environmental lobbyists. Surveys always show that forest and watershed health are high priorities for high percentages of the public. Conservation and protection of forest health are priorities for a number of the largest environmental organizations. Yet, neither expressed public concerns nor environmental lobbying have effectively countered the influence of the timber industry.

Why Has the Environmental Community Failed?

Why has the environmental community failed to counter the timber industry effectively?

Again, this question needs answers from people more intimately familiar with the workings of the political process in Sacramento than I, but I have several observations:

  • Environmental organizations are influential forces within the state legislature. A majority of legislators in both houses generally support environmental positions, including those on forestry policy. This reflects in large measure the large majorities of liberal/progressive Democrats in both houses.

  • Environmental organizations have poor relations with business lobbies and legislators who are responsive to business concerns.

  • Environmental organizations have had and continue to have limited influence within the administration (the executive branch, headed by the governor). This is due at least in part to the priority given by all (most?) administrations to achieving a prosperous and growing economy, which leads them to give great weight to the expressed concerns of the business community.

  • The business community may also have a disproportionate influence in the administration because campaign contributions from businesses play a larger role in gubernatorial than in legislative elections.

  • The lack of strong relations between environmental forestry advocates and any powerful business interests may be the primary reason the timber industry is able to dominate forestry policy.

What Can the Environmental Community Do?

The environmentalist community needs to ask itself: What are we doing wrong? How can we increase our influence over forestry policy and appointments within the administration?

Again, the answer to these questions needs to come from people more knowledgeable than I. If the above observations are accurate, though, one objective should be to start building alliances with important business interests. One business group that comes to mind is high technology.  In general, high technology firms are relatively clean industries whose most important employees care about the environment in which they live.

It should be possible to develop good relations with selected business interests. Progressive businesses should find it easy to support progressive forestry once they are shown that the timber extraction industry is miniscule, especially if their employees can be enlisted in this cause. Support of business for progressive forestry in return for environmentalist support for elements of the progressive business agenda would be a good horse trade.

The support of economically and politically powerful allies within the business community would cut down the influence of the timber industry. When truly big business speaks out for good forestry appointments, the governor will listen. And the public will applaud. Good forestry is good popular politics.  

Forest and Timber Background

The following text and figures are excerpted from The Changing California, Forest and Range Assessment 2003, prepared by the California Department of Forestry. Highlights to the text are supplied by the author and did not appear in the original.


Lumber production in California reached a low in 2001 of just over 2.7 billion board feet, with an approximate wholesale value of $1.1 billion dollars (Figure 77). This is the lowest year in the last two decades, continuing to follow an overall downward trend both in number of sawmills and lumber output. 

To meet the growing demand for lumber and other forest products, a demand that is equivalent to over 10 billion board feet of lumber, paper, and other wood products annually, Californians rely heavily on imports.[2] Estimates of wood product inflows from other states into California indicate at least three billion board feet of lumber was imported from other western states (Western Wood Products Association, 2002). In 2002, Oregon was California’s single largest supplier of lumber. Additional lumber was also imported from Canada as well as other countries and southern states. In addition, California imports nearly all of its pulp and paper.

Value of products from forest product sectors

The percentage of the state GSP [Gross State Product] represented directly by the lumber and wood products industry in 2000 is just under 0.3 percent (Figure 1).[3] 

Figure 1. Lumber, wood, paper, and allied products Gross State Product as a percentage of total
California Gross State Product, 1980, 1985, 1990, 1995 and 2000 (1996 constant dollars)

 Source: U.S. Department of Commerce, 2002b

 Geographic Scope

 California covers a vast landscape of over 100 million acres, of which over 80 percent are defined as forests and rangelands (Table 3, Figure 10). The geographic scope of forests and rangelands are addressed by statute as those suitable for timber production or grazing by domestic livestock, and other forested lands (Figure 9)…





[1] The ratio of the wholesale value of timber production ($1.1 billion) in 2001 to the Gross State Product ($1,359 billion) is .00081, or less than one one-thousandth.

The wholesale value includes the value of the harvested trees, plus the costs of logging, log transportation, and sawmill operation. It measures the economic contribution of the timber extraction industries of the state. These are the industries that directly affect the condition of the forests and watersheds of the state, or in the case of sawmills, whose production is closely tied to timber extraction.

The broader "lumber and wood products industries" constitute about 0.3 percent of the state's economic production, but it is erroneous to link the health of wood product processing industries to the operations of the timber extraction industries. These industries have continued to expand as California timber production has declined, by importing the needed wood from other states and Canada.

[2] California timber production fulfilled only 27 percent of estimated consumption of wood products, including paper and cardboard.

[3] The timber extraction industries accounted for only .08 of one percent of GSP.

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