Trying to see forest for the trees - Conservation trust plans to harvest timber while saving North Coast redwoods

By Stuart Leavenworth -- Sacramento Bee Staff Writer

December 22, 2003

BOONVILLE -- The blue-collar diners and hippy hangouts of this Mendocino County town have been buzzing for days about a beguiling rumor. According to the buzz, an East Coast conservation outfit was preparing to buy nearly 24,000 acres of neighboring timberland for $18 million. But instead of setting aside the redwoods as a preserve, the group hopes to turn it into a showcase of environmental forestry -- selectively harvesting some trees with the goal of restoring an old-growth forest.

It was not just gossip. On Dec. 11, the California Coastal Conservancy awarded $10 million to the Virginia-based Conservation Fund, a land trust with twin missions of nurturing nature and local economies. With the money, the nonprofit group has nearly enough to purchase 40 percent of the watershed of the Garcia River -- one of the largest conservation deals ever on the North Coast.

Although nonprofit groups have helped protect millions of acres statewide, this will mark the first time a land trust has attempted to manage a working timberland in California, according to the Conservation Fund, whose leaders are excited and nervous about the project.

"Undoubtedly there will be some who will find fault with this approach," said Chris Kelly, the fund's California director who worries about the North Coast's history of timber clashes.

"But it is easy for environmental groups to stand on the sidelines and criticize forestry," he added. "It is another thing entirely to be in there, doing it on the ground."

Three times larger than the Headwaters Forest, which the government purchased in 1996 for $380 million, the Garcia River tract is a rugged expanse of young firs and redwoods that surround one of the region's most important salmon streams.

Despite decades of intensive logging, coho salmon and steelhead trout still spawn in the river and its tumbling tributaries. More than 80 bird species have been sighted in the watershed, including northern spotted owls, falcons, eagles and white-tail kites.

The writer Jack London once rambled through this land, predicting that the North Coast "will one day support a population of millions."

A century later, many conservationists fear his prediction is becoming alarmingly true.

Increasingly, said Kelly, timber companies are facing tough competition abroad and regulation at home. Many are selling off large tracts to home builders and vineyard developers, a transition that could change the entire redwoods region, which stretches 300 miles from Santa Rosa to the Smith River.

In the case of the Garcia River property, a company called Coastal Forestlands owned it until 1998, then sold it to Pioneer Resources, a company that unsuccessfully tried to start a real estate investment trust. After Pioneer folded in 2000, its' creditors have slowly been trying to liquidate its assets.

Larry Selzer, president of the Conservation Fund, fears that much of the North Coast could soon be sold piecemeal if land trusts don't seize opportunity.

"If we can protect this property, it creates a stopper against development, whether it be second homes or vineyards conversion," said Selzer. Nonprofits, he added, have to step up because "the state doesn't have the resources to manage large tracts of forest land."

A relative newcomer to the California land trust scene, the Conservation Fund was formed in 1985 and claims to have protected 3.5 million acres nationwide. For the last three years, the group has earned the highest rating from the Journal of Philanthropy, putting 95 percent of its funding into programs. It has a board that ranges from Nelson Rockefeller Jr. to marine conservationist Sylvia Earle.

On a crisp Thursday morning, fund director Kelly and Jim Clark, a forestry consultant, drove out of Boonville in a four-wheel-drive truck to survey the group's latest venture.

Bouncing up a curvy network of old logging roads, they passed by waterfalls cascading down hillsides and deer bounding up slopes. They ate cookies near a fork in the Garcia River, and gazed at the blue Pacific from a mountain lookout.

They also surveyed a legacy of logging and road-building on the land. During their tour, they passed by aging culverts, creaking bridges and unstable hillsides that had dumped boulders on the road.

"Jim, how much money is it going to cost to fix that?" Kelly asked during a brief moment of buyer's remorse. Another thing to consider, said Clark, is marijuana growers, who like to squat on remote timberland.

Of all the group's challenges, timber harvesting is the most daunting. In recent years, forest activists have tangled repeatedly with Pacific Lumber and other companies trying to log old trees. No one knows how activists will react to harvesting by a nonprofit organization in a younger forest.

Kelly, who previously worked for the Nature Conservancy, said the fund probably won't sell any timber for eight years or so. During that time, it hopes to work with locals on a management plan that will provide public access and restoration. He expects the plan to set aside about one-third of the 24,000 acres in permanent preserves.

Then the group will go about the sometimes arduous task of obtaining state timber harvest permits, using logging revenues to pay for upkeep of the land.

Supporters say it may be impossible to satisfy all the far-flung viewpoints on how timberland should be managed.

"Politics being what they are on the North Coast, I am sure there will be some tensions," said Sam Schuchat, executive officer of the state Coastal Conservancy, a state agency that uses voter-approved bond money for coastal protection projects.

"There are enviros who aren't happy with any kind of logging, and property rights activists who wish the nonprofits would go back to the Bay Area from whence they came."

Even so, the Coastal Conservancy wants to protect more "working landscapes" in coming years, he said, and sees the $10 million as a good investment. "A lot of people see this as the future of the North Coast," Schuchat said.

For now, the main focus of the Conservation Fund is raising the remaining cash. Aside from the $10 million in state funds, the project has received $3.5 million in pledges from the Nature Conservancy, which will retain a conservation easement over the land and conduct research in the area. The Conservation Fund is kicking in $2 million of its own money, leaving $2.5 million that Kelly must raise by mid-January.

Craig Bell, watershed coordinator for the Garcia River, calls the purchase "an early Christmas present" for the river and hopes that foundations will help bridge the gap.

Art Harwood, a Branscomb sawmill owner who heads a nonprofit called the Redwood Forest Foundation, also was upbeat. "Clearly, this is more viable than the old model, which was industrial forestry," he said.

In Boonville, population 1,000, reaction was more mixed. Some people hadn't heard about the project. Others were wary. The town has long cultivated a reputation of resisting outside influence. Residents, in fact, once invented their own language, called Boontling, to "shark the bright lighters" (confuse the city slickers).

Sara McCamant, an employee at Boont Berry Farm, an organic produce market, said locals will probably embrace the idea of a working forest preserve, once they learn more about it.

"I'm a big fan of sustainable forestry," she said. "But it depends who is doing it, and how they do it."



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