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SIMPSON CORNING WETLANDS CASE: QUESTIONS AND ANSWERS
Release Date: 3/16/1995
Contact Information: Dave Schmidt, U.S. EPA, (415) 744-1578
On February 28, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's (U.S.
EPA) Region 9 office in San Francisco issued an administrative order
to Simpson Timber Co. regarding the Tehama Fiber Farm in Corning,
California. The order allows the tree farm to continue operation, but
requires Simpson to stop any illegal discharge of fill into wetlands
and streams. The following Questions and Answers are intended to
clarify the issues involved.
1) What are the findings of U.S. EPA's investigation?
Simpson's eucalyptus plantation covers about 16 square miles,
including many acres that were streams, vernal pools, and other water-
related habitats prior to Simpson's operation. Before planting
eucalyptus trees, Simpson altered and in some cases destroyed vernal
pools by "deep ripping," which punctures the layer of clay underlying
the pools, thus causing rainwater to drain through the soil instead of
collecting in a pool. We are currently investigating how many acres
of vernal pools and other wetlands have been lost. This is a serious
environmental problem because over 90% of California's original
wetlands have already been destroyed.
2) What are vernal pools and why should we protect them?
Vernal pools are depressions that fill with rainwater during
California's wet winter months and then gradually dry up during
spring. The water that collects in these seasonal wetlands during the
rainy season lasts well into spring because of a water-impervious
layer of soil a few inches to a few feet below the surface.
The destruction of over 90% of California's original wetlands has
been the principle cause of drastic declines in the numbers of fish
and wildlife over the past century. The remaining wetlands, including
vernal pools, are more valuable for wildlife habitat than ever before.
Like other freshwater wetlands, vernal pools provide
habitat that is crucial to the survival of many species of birds and
animals, especially migratory ducks and water birds. This, in turn,
supports hunting, bird-watching and other beneficial activities.
Vernal pools are also home for a diverse assemblage of animal and
plant species that cannot live elsewhere.
3) Aren't vernal pools dry most of the year? Why not focus your
preservation efforts on wetlands that are wet all year round?
In California and the Southwest, most freshwater wetlands are wet
only a few months -- or even weeks -- of the year. But scientific
studies show that the number of species of plants, animals, and birds
that depend on these seasonal wetlands for survival is just as high --
or higher -- than wetlands that are flooded all year round. Both
types of wetlands are equally important.
4) What action did U.S. EPA take regarding the Tehama Fiber Farm?
U.S. EPA issued an administrative order on February 28 requiring
Simpson to stop deep ripping and other soil moving activity in
wetlands and other waters, and to provide information about Simpson's
Tehama Fiber Farm.
5) Will the administrative order shut down Simpson's eucalyptus
No. U.S. EPA will work with Simpson to identify ways to continue
tree farming on their property without conflicting with the Clean
6) Why did U.S. EPA use a search warrant to search for evidence in
this case, and then issue an order?
As a regulatory and law enforcement agency, U.S. EPA may use
search warrants issued by a U.S. Magistrate and issue administrative
orders to investigate and address violations of federal environmental
laws. The important issue here is what the evidence indicates --
namely, that many acres of streams and wetlands may have been
illegally damaged or destroyed.
7) Where did this evidence come from?
U.S. EPA's evidence is based on a review of records from Simpson,
and inspection of, Simpson's Tehama Fiber Farm.
8) Why did U.S. EPA issue an order now if the tree farm has been in
operation since 1987?
U.S. EPA was not aware that the tree farm was damaging wetlands
until the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service called our attention to it
late last year, and we began to investigate. Simpson did not notify
U.S. EPA or the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers that their tree farm
contained wetlands, as they should have.
9) If Simpson had notified U.S. EPA before they started work on the
tree farm, would they have gotten the required permit to proceed?
Their plans would have been reviewed by the U.S. Army Corps of
Engineers and, if necessary, by U.S. EPA. Permits can be issued with
conditions to ensure the protection of streams and wetlands.
10) Doesn't Simpson have the right to use their land the way they see
Under the Clean Water Act, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (COE)
and U.S. EPA are responsible for protecting wetlands and other waters.
Since much of the land in question contains wetlands and other waters
subject to the federal Clean Water Act (Section 404), the discharge of
fill material into them--including earth-moving operations such as
"deep ripping"--requires a permit from the COE. It was Simpson's
responsibility to apply for a permit and comply with the Clean Water
Act. The COE must evaluate whether the proposed project will harm or
destroy wetlands, and determine whether less environmentally harmful
alternatives are available. Landowners must work with the COE to
fully address these matters.
In contrast to the case of Simpson's Tehama Timber Farm, Pacific
Gas and Electric Co. (PG&E) worked with the COE to protect wetlands in
the course of building a natural gas pipeline through the Simpson
property. PG&E, in fact, restored wetlands on-site and acquired or
created vernal pools at other locations as mitigation for its
activities that harmed wetlands.
11) Isn't planting trees good for the environment?
Simpson's eucalyptus plantation is a valuable enterprise, and
planting trees can be good for the environment. In this case,
however, Simpson failed to address competing environmental concerns.
The trees might have been planted in locations that avoided damage to
streams and vernal pools. These habitats provide unique environmental
benefits that are not duplicated or replaced by a eucalyptus tree
plantation. They provide habitat for ducks and other water birds,
which in turn support hunting, bird-watching, and other beneficial
activities. Also, vernal pools support many species of California
native plants and wildlife that exist nowhere else.
12) Is Simpson's tree plantation an agricultural operation that is
exempt from wetlands regulation?
Congress has exempted certain long-standing agricultural
practices from the Clean Water Act's wetlands protection provisions,
but Simpson's operations do not qualify for this exemption. Because
Simpson's operations are relatively recent and involve either
conversion of wetlands to dry lands or substantial new impacts to
wetlands and creeks, Simpson must apply for a Clean Water Act permit.
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