Forests for the Future

GIS played a critical role in Headwaters negotiations.

by / May 31, 1999
In February, after years of protracted negotiation, California and the federal government agreed to pay Pacific Lumber Company $480 million for approximately 17,000 acres of forest lands in Northern California's Humboldt County. The purchase includes the Headwaters, location of a 3,800-acre grove of old-growth virgin redwoods.

The agreement was conditional on development of a Habitat Conservation Plan (HCP) and Sustained Yield Plan (SYP) for the company's remaining 210,000 acres of forest lands, with Pacific Lumber and federal and state agencies working together to produce the plans. Between outright purchase and set-asides for the 50-year permit, more than 90 percent of the old-growth redwoods on Pacific Lumber property are protected.

The initial agreement to buy the Headwaters as a public preserve was brokered primarily by U.S. Sen. Diane Feinstein, and by Douglas Wheeler on behalf of then-Gov. Pete Wilson. The agreement allowed government agencies and Pacific Lumber to begin developing the HCP and SYP. The process was to be completed in 21/2 years, a time limit set by Congress. Within a month, however, negotiators bogged down over the data and methods to be used in identifying the environmental and economic resources of the 210,000 acres.

At this point, the California Resources Agency brought in Thomas Reid Associates (TRA), an environmental planning firm based in Palo Alto, Calif. Using ESRI ArcInfo GIS technology, TRA reconciled vast amounts of biological, geographic and economic data; modeled the resources involved; and created an interactive map that helped negotiators understand relationships between different resources and often disparate data sources. Although the technology provided no easy solutions, it let the parties develop the plans on time.

Redwoods History

Old-growth redwoods are the giant sequoias of coastal California -- some are 2,000 years old and stand almost 400 feet tall, with bases taking 18 people holding hands to encircle. Groves of these ancient trees form living cathedrals found nowhere else in the world.

Taking their cue from the conservation efforts of Theodore Roosevelt during the late 1800s, the federal government, the state and environmental groups have made numerous efforts to preserve these trees through the
creation of national parks and other public preserves.

However, the lumber industry has long been an economic mainstay in the Pacific Northwest, and redwood, because of its beauty and durability, is one of the most commercially important timber trees. Old-growth redwood, in particular, fetches premium prices.

Nevertheless, opposition to continued cutting of virgin redwoods has grown steadily. Although national parks have protected some sequoias, the largest concentration of these trees is still in private hands.

The Turning Point

The issue heated up in 1986 when Pacific Lumber, in operation since the late 1800s, became the target of a hostile takeover by the Maxxam Corporation of Houston. To pay off the relatively high debt cost of the takeover, Maxxam stepped up the harvesting of redwoods, angering environmentalists. From the late 1980s to the early 1990s, concern over the increased cutting of old-growth redwoods spawned a grassroots movement and a political groundswell of opposition.

In 1991, the marbled murrelet, a robin-size sea bird that nests only on the limbs of old-growth redwoods, was listed as an endangered species. The political movement was now joined by a regulatory process that imposed a moratorium on cutting old-growth redwoods. Numerous efforts by federal and state officials to hammer out a compromise with Pacific Lumber were unsuccessful, and the standoff between economic interests and the state's desire to preserve old-growth redwood forests, and the habitats within them, persisted.

The breakthrough came with the 1996 agreement brokered by Sen. Feinstein and Wheeler. It also set in motion a process intended to lead to development of conservation and sustained yield plans, pursuant to the State Forest Practice Rules, plus the initial $380 million Headwaters purchase -- later augmented when the state included other land in the agreement. The main participants, the federal government, the state and Pacific Lumber, were represented in the negotiations by teams of federal, state and corporate officials, plus biologists, lawyers and a Pacific Lumber lobbyist.

Sticking Points

Although a deal had been arranged, the negotiating process quickly stalled over disagreement on how to apply the deal to Pacific Lumber's complex landscape. Part of the problem was the sheer scope of the data brought to the table by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS), the U.S. Geological Service (USGS) and the California Department of Fish and Game.

The spectrum of data included tree types, marbled murrelets, streams, roads, private lands, spatial characteristics of forest lands and buffers associated with various habitats. Pacific Lumber brought in a base map derived from remote sensing, and a GIS database that included tree types, roads and areas logged or selectively trimmed.

The company used the map to identify stages of timber growth and estimate board feet of lumber. There was little consensus on what the data actually represented, and how it should be used to guide development of a conservation plan.

It was at this point that consultant Reid was brought into the fray. According to Reid, one major barrier to even initiating technical negotiations was a deep-seated mistrust of the data Pacific Lumber was providing the agencies.

"Part of it was that participants were given what appeared to be final products, and it wasn't clear how the information had been derived. The other was that the data just seemed to shimmer around like a mirage," Reid said. "Some people attributed this to an effort by the company to hide information, but after several months of really hard work, we came to the conclusion the company had been nothing other than forthright with the data."

Phil Detrich of the USFWS said private industry has concerns about opening its databases to government. Once in government hands, proprietary information could be released through the Freedom of Information Act, becoming available to competitors, or to antagonists in litigation. Detrich's role, and that of his staff, was compiling biological information to be applied in the planning process and negotiating the biological standards eventually used in the HCP.

"In the case of [Pacific Lumber]," Detrich said, "the company was reluctant to provide us with the entire database for use in our GIS systems. But they were able to negotiate an understanding with the state's consultant, TRA. Reid held the company's database and provided, on an edited basis, the answers that we needed. It was largely his experience that helped the company refine their database by reducing much of the floating error within the various categories."

According to Alicia Torregrosa, TRA's GIS coordinator, another sticking point was the difficulty of deciding which base map to use. In addition, different views on the various data sources and temporal and spatial aspects of the landscape were constantly changing with seasonal conditions and ongoing logging, which made the accuracy of any base map questionable.

"If two separate data layers of streams didn't match," Torregrosa said, "we would find that one was using drainage algorithms based on elevation models, and the other was a USGS hydrology base map corrected by ground reconnaissance. Also, streams suddenly appeared during the rainy season, causing problems in estimating the impact of stream buffers."

Reconciling the Databases

TRA's first task was resolving the differences in the databases, identifying error sources and sufficiently refining Pacific Lumber's interactive base map to serve as a basis for negotiating the issues and concerns of the participants. Reid also developed a table with a standard method of comparing both biological and economic costs. The work was carried out over a six-month period.

According to Reid, the most important results of this phase of the process were acceptance of the database, and a quantified, spatial analysis of old-growth redwood in the 210,000-plus-acre landscape agreed to by everybody. Also, because it was not feasible to ground-truth the entire area, participants agreed to accept certain limitations of the data. "At that point," Reid said, "they had a basis for understanding the economic and environmental facts -- they could negotiate, they could argue."

Establishing the Game Plan

Reid's presence at negotiations in Washington was virtual, via computer and three open phone lines from his office in Palo Alto. To assure that everyone followed the same procedure, he first established ground rules for understanding the data sets and models, and the relationships
of economic and environmental resources. Maps were used initially to help negotiators develop a human-scale familiarity with what they were negotiating.

"Our work was to have them get a sense of what the resources were, where they were -- what they were going to be fighting about. Once they knew the shape of the playing field, they didn't need a lot of visualization," Reid said.

Reid likened the process to learning the rules of chess. "If you have a picture of the chess board and you know the rules of the game, you can play by correspondence, just by giving your opponent the code; for example, king's rook to king's knight three. First, we taught them the rules of GIS data. Then we allowed them to play the game by phone."

During the meetings, Reid said, negotiators and participants asked questions using the code numbers he and Torregrosa had given them. "Then we would do the calculations and give them the bottom line in terms of biological and economic costs. That's mostly what they wanted."

The process included characterizing resource data on the distribution of forest land by timber volume (the primary economic measure), by location and by the role of resources as habitats for the threatened marbled murrelet. Since Reid had put the locations of bird sightings into the database, he was able to provide biologists with answers to questions about nesting locations.

If loggers wanted to cut trees near a murrelet site, clicking on the map location could bring up data on the number of birds at or near that site. Other participants queried the locations and numbers of Douglas fir, old-growth and second-growth forests, streams and roads.

"Because we had prepared all these data sets in advance, we could just click them on and off, change the legends, color all the old growth in green, and the Douglas fir in blue -- whatever helped people to understand the landscape," Reid said. "Negotiators could pick biological or economic resources to save and instantly see what kind of cash flow they got out of it. The GIS allowed the negotiations to go forward with a kind of realtime 'what-if' approach. They could ask questions and get answers. Most of the time the answers were pessimistic. There was no easy solution out there. That's why the negotiations took so long."

Participants could tailor the maps Reid printed with what-if scenarios. "Once they developed that understanding, they figured out there were one or two things they needed to know. From there on, it was all by telephone. If you want to save Allen Creek [an old-growth redwood grove that became a marbled murrelet conservation area], here is the trade-off cost in terms of lumber, and this is what you gain in terms of acres of redwoods and numbers of birds. Of course, we had a base map, so the technical people knew what we were talking about. It was the pictures, yes, but interactiveness was 90 percent of the value of the GIS."

Lessons Learned

Reid stressed that the complexity of the GIS made it difficult to come up with consistent results without laying down a rigid framework for the analysis. "That's something managers really need to hear. You can't just tell people, 'Go do GIS and come back' and expect the same answer twice. Sharing data is great, but you've got to go through a lot of quality-control steps to make sure that it works out. Management needs to allow for a great deal of time for quality-controlling information."

Detrich agreed. "We probably learned a hard lesson in that we got fairly well down the path before we had the information database well established. It probably would have been better to spend more time up front on establishing the baseline and getting agreement between the parties as to the quality and status of the information before we got too far into the planning process."

Looking Back

Detrich said GIS was most helpful in identifying spatial relationships between habitat areas of varying qualities. "A circular area, for instance, provides more habitat-interior protection than does a long, narrow rectangle. The acreage and the timber volume might be the same for both, but for the purposes of wildlife planning, the former is clearly more valuable. Having the information available about the shapes and distances between those areas was important in describing what would eventually become the design for habitat and resource reserve in the conservation plans."

Mark Stopher represented the state Department of Fish and Game in the negotiations. His responsibility was to work with counterparts at the National Marine Fisheries Service and the USFWS in putting together a habitat conservation plan meeting the criteria for the covered species, including assessing and mitigating the impacts on them, and providing equivalent benefits through mitigation.

Stopher said GIS was essential to the successful development of the conservation plans. "Without it, we probably couldn't have made the deal. In terms of what we were required to accomplish, it has a great deal of integrity. If someone asks, 'Why pick that stand?' or 'Why pick that size buffer?' we can use GIS to illustrate how the plans were put together and why it makes sense. I think it's a winning solution."

Bill McGarigle is a writer specializing in communications and information technology. He is based in Santa Cruz, Calif. Email