Timber Prices Rise, Redwoods Fall

`IF I want to take half the redwoods, it's nobody's business but mine,'' says Nick Kusalich, standing outside the Sunrise Cafe here in overalls and work boots.

Mr. Kusalich's reference is to some highly valued trees on his 15-acre tract of orchard land, vineyard, and redwoods, originally purchased by his father in 1928. When Kusalich, a retired carpet store owner, recently decided to tidy up the land for resale - by cleaning up some of the underbrush and trimming out a few trees - he felt entitled.

Hundreds of home and landowners in this rural Silicon Valley bedroom community have decided to do the same. They are taking advantage of timber prices that have soared from $170 per thousand board feet three years ago to between $600 and $700 today - largely a result of federal policies to close off hundreds of thousands of acres of public lands to protect the endangered spotted owl.

Because irate neighbors are waking up to find rows of stumps where stands of towering trees once flourished, a major battle is flaring. ``Timber companies are going door to door offering thousands of dollars for just a few trees, and in this time of recession, that's looking really good to lots of folks,'' says Ken Delfino, deputy director of resources for the State Department of Forestry and Fire Protection. The documents that owners must file to notify local authorities of such cutting have increased from 1,000 in 1988 to 3,000 in 1992, Mr. Delfino says. This year paperwork is expected on 6,000 cutting projects.

As complaining neighbors have learned, Kusalich and others have the right to chop down redwoods without community review on up to three acres of land. And since the county's 150,000 acres of forest land are nearly all privately owned, residents are being encouraged to do just that by out-of-state operators who set up temporary offices in local motels.

Some see the battle lines forming between old-timers and new residents. The county has added 46,000 new residents since 1980, many of whom are more liberal in embracing the environmental ethic than those whose families have passed down land since stagecoach days.

``It's not ... a totally bad thing on one side and totally good on the other,'' says Nancy Drinkard, a forester for the State Department of Forestry. ``Some people are acting with bonafide purpose and others are just trying to realize money in bad times.''

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