A Forester for The Trees

Think commercial loggers can't be environmentalists? Think again. A day with Nadia Hamey, the forester developing a sustainable yield logging plan for Cemex Redwoods.

by Clark Tate

Oct. 11, 2013—I envisioned a hike with forester Nadia Hamey, despite knowing quite a bit about her progressive practices, to be something like a walk in the woods with Kirk Douglas’s character from the 1952 film The Big Trees, a professional who sees not a forest but acres and acres of board feet. Nope. Hamey sees the trees, the forest and the broader California coastal ecosystem in which they are intertwined. A Gen X forester, she bridges generational and ideological gaps so sturdily that it’s easy to forget such chasms exist—and broadly enough to allow for two-way traffic.

I meet up with Hamey at a nondescript entrance to the Cemex Redwoods property. She hands me a hall pass for my car (her card)—public access is at least two years away—and we get to walking. This woman is a force in the least formidable way. She’s someone I’d trust with my dog and who, currently in charge of security at Cemex, body blocks trespassing dirt bikers to politely explain that they’re breaking the law and that they should, you know, stop. In short, she’s the type that gets the job done, with a grin. This hardworking affability is handy in her profession.

Hamey is writing the timber harvesting plan (THP) that will partially fund the maintenance of the future 8,500-acre Cemex public park. The property, purchased in 2011 by five environmental organizations—Sempervirens Fund, the Land Trust of Santa Cruz County, Save the Redwoods League, Peninsula Open Space Trust and The Nature Conservancy—was owned by a cement manufacturer and logged during the last century. As part of an innovative management plan, one-third of the property will remain working forest, with small parcels being harvested on a rotating schedule, while the other two-thirds will be permanently protected from commercial logging. Hamey is creating the blueprint for those rotating timber harvests on the working forest portion.

While this THP is definitely a “Cadillac” version to hold up to the extreme scrutiny such an ambitious project will attract, she doesn’t see it as dramatically different from other THPs she’s written. She always cares about doing it well.

What is quite different in this case is that at least 50 percent of the revenue will go back to water quality improvements, with the other 50 percent going to “other groovy restoration.” “You hardly ever have the luxury to sink all the revenue for a timber harvest back into the property,” Hamey says. “It’s a fun THP.”

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A forester at Big Creek Lumber for 10 years, Hamey’s given her trade, and trees, a lot of thought—a lifetime’s worth. Born and raised on Canada’s Vancouver and Charlotte islands by a forester dad and biologist/forester mom, Hamey came by her career honestly. The comprehensiveness of her forestry philosophies had me—an environmental science and policy major and (literal) tree hugger—nodding right along: of course we should be logging trees to save forests. What could be more obvious?

To be clear, most of the old-growth Santa Cruz Mountains redwood is already protected. It’s the previously harvested second growth that’s in question. It is a peculiar eco-ethical twist, working the land to preserve it from development. Hamey’s been setting herself up for it from the start.

Reform School
Many Canadian timber harvest practices Hamey witnessed in her youth gave her serious pause. “I grew up with clear-cutting from the ocean to the ridge kind of without qualm,” she says, noting that the land wasn’t managed with long-term interests in mind. She wasn’t a fan. When deciding on a university, she avoided British Columbian options that she felt were “complicit in the standards of the day,” heading to UC-Berkeley for a progressive-minded, rigorous forestry education.

“I feel like Berkeley gave me a really strong foundation in the art and science of forestry,” says Hamey. Originally her goal was to use that foundation to reform Vancouver Island timber harvesting practices. But Hamey decided first to take several internships and a two-year stint of monitoring and inventory work at a Berkeley research field station. Then she heard of an opening for a position at Big Creek Lumber Company.

Big Creek Lumber was founded in 1946 on a foundation of sustainable business practices meant to avoid the industry’s standard boom-and-bust cycle. Like so many revolutionary ideas, the plan was simple: cut some trees today and leave some trees to be cut tomorrow. It was just environmentally happy circumstance that, in this industry, forested landscapes are good for business. Thus Big Creek was ahead of the game when environmental regulations entered the forestry industry in the 1970s. Today, Hamey maintains, the forest regulations in California might be “the most robust in the world,” particularly so in the Southern Subdistrict (Marin, San Francisco, San Mateo, Santa Clara and Santa Cruz counties).

How does Hamey like all that red tape? “The rules bring the bar up to a certain threshold,” she says, but they aren’t perfect. “The proscriptive rules are kind of one-size-fits-all. I like the practices that result from those rules, but it would be helpful to have more professional discretion.” For example, a certain number of trees and percentage of plant cover is required when replanting beside streams. But those systems are rarely so uniform in nature, often supporting patches of differing vegetation called mosaics. The proscriptions don’t allow for such mosaic variety.

Woodswoman in The World
We’re still walking. Around this point in our tour we pause by a small, very old dam on Big Creek, and Hamey shifts to the subject of coho salmon. They mate downstream, and excess sediment in the system could be catastrophic.

Hamey is an unabashed forester (“I live and breathe it—this is my life”), but her passion casts a wide net. She loves to garden and nerd out on botany, trailing botanists hired for various projects to “sponge off of them.” While we hike I learn about the high incidence of endemic species in Santa Cruz (specifically the popular Santa Cruz manzanita) but give up on writing down all the Latin names flying around. Hamey also calmly points out mountain lion sign (!) and tells me about the endearingly naïve marbled murrelets, which seek out large, flat limbs for their eggs only to have crows and other corvids devour them. She likes to hike and bike beneath redwoods, and is even attempting to spray-paint one on her water tank, inspired by the stunning graffiti she saw in Valparaiso, Chile. Her newest pursuit? Climbing trees. Really big trees.

The Land Trust of Santa Cruz County organized The Great White Tree Climb at the Byrne-Milliron Forest last spring. The Great White Redwood is an anomaly, a ghostly oldtimer of 600 years in a sea of younger trees. The Land Trust wanted to measure its height (a forester’s clinometer is extremely difficult to use on such a large tree), and they wanted Hamey along for the climb. She was honored. “It was a real treat,” she says. “I felt very flattered.” Two other climbers spidered up ropes with Hamey to measure the tree, which was 233 feet—17 feet shy of being half the height of the Moss Landing smoke stacks. They also found out why the tree is white (lots of lichen). Hamey was hooked. “It gave me the bug,” she says. Now she wants to get this squirrel’s-eye view on all of her projects.

By now we are sitting in the mossy shade of a gnarled old redwood seemingly more dead than alive. “It’s really old. It’s been through lots of fires. It’s a keeper,” observes Hamey. “I always say they have a will to live.”

She explains that to kill a redwood you practically have to dig out its root ball. This is a good thing when it comes to harvesting. “You can cut a tree and the next generation appears and grows off the existing root mass, so it grows like crazy,” Hamey says. This is why selectively harvesting redwoods ever so often works so well, she says. “The crown closes in again over time if you just do light touch logging every 20 years.”

Abundant Opinions
Folks certainly have plenty of opinions about the harvesting of trees—sustainably or no—particularly redwoods. There are so many viewpoints that Hamey finds it hard to generalize about public reactions.

Every year she speaks to an environmental studies class at Cabrillo College. “Our generation is more hip to where their stuff comes from, so the types of harvesting we do here resonates with that message,” Hamey says, referring to the new “buy local” awareness. “California imports 80 percent of wood products we use. I think that is irresponsible. We have some of the most productive growth potential in the world. We need to manage our resources responsibly so we don’t just push off our demand on places that don’t have the environmental requirements that we do.”

Then there are those projects that really rile people. One stands out in her mind. As she tells it, one Santa Cruz Mountains harvest plan was killed by a particularly vehement and well-connected public who lobbied Al Gore to speak out against the plan, which he did. “People lost their minds over it,” Hamey remembers.

Now it’s time for us to decide whether to retrace our steps or forge ahead on a cross-country loop. We forge ahead. Hamey speaks of the bright future for sustainable timber harvesting and its many implications.

“The potential is sort of limitless,” she says. This type of work could solve state and federal park budget crises. And she’s excited that environmental organizations are discussing forest management as a tool in their belts. She’s also very excited about the potential of restoration forestry—harvesting practices that prime a current second-growth forest for future old-growth trees, or those that enhance various eco-values.

About six hours and seven miles after we struck out on a stroll, we trail in on the taillights of one truly incandescent sunset, exhausted, I with renewed faith in the grand potential for creative, environmentally-minded collaboration and both of us with sore feet.