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A Sonoma County judge has halted logging operations tied to a disputed timber harvest plan in the Gualala River watershed until a court challenge against the project can be resolved.

Superior Court Judge Rene Chouteau granted a preliminary injunction Wednesday, affirming an earlier tentative ruling in which he said environmentalists challenging the plan had a strong enough case to justify a court-ordered freeze on the work.

Continued felling of trees in the project area, near the coast along the Sonoma-Mendocino county border, would alter the environment in a manner that could not be rectified were plaintiffs to prevail in the lawsuit and approval of the logging plan withdrawn, Chouteau said.

“Once you cut these trees down and actually damage these areas, that’s it,” said Chris Poehlmann, president of Friends of the Gualala River, a group pressing the lawsuit along with Forestville-based Forest Unlimited. Chouteau’s ruling did not address the validity of the arguments in the case, tentatively set for a Nov. 29 hearing.

At issue are plans by Gualala Redwood Timber to selectively log 330 acres of redwood forest spread among nearly a dozen spots along the lower river. The so-called Dogwood harvest plan, approved by Cal Fire on July 1, covers an area logged in the past and includes stands of large second-growth redwood trees, some of which are a century old.

Gualala Redwood Timber is controlled by Healdsburg resident Roger Burch and his family trust, which last year acquired the timberland in a purchase of more than 29,000 acres of forest along the lower Gualala River. The company already has logged about 17 percent of the Dogwood plan, launching operations July 22, two weeks after critics notified Cal Fire of their intent to challenge the plan in court. GRT agreed to stop work Aug. 18, pending a ruling on the injunction sought by environmental groups. The company continued removing cut timber from the area during the voluntary suspension and is still logging two other authorized projects nearby in the watershed, company representatives said.

GRT forest manager Henry Alden, who has managed the timberland for nearly two decades as vice president for the former owner, has said the Dogwood project would foster growth of older trees in the area and improve forest health without causing the damage critics fear.

But opponents say logging activity and the heavy machinery that goes with it would degrade an already impaired waterway and risk harm to a host of plant and animal species that include the California red-legged frog and steelhead trout, both listed as threatened under the federal Endangered Species Act. They also say Cal Fire improperly granted an exception to rules protecting streamside areas in approving the plan. GRT disputes those assertions, and Cal Fire and other regulatory agencies say the timber company has met the requirements to go forward.

If barred from completing the Dogwood harvest, Burch’s parent company, Pacific State Industries, which owns the Redwood Empire sawmill in Cloverdale and another mill in Philo, would not have sufficient inventory to keep its 240 mill workers employed through the winter, risking layoffs and loss of $1.4 million in profits and overhead expenses, according to court documents.

The company asked Chouteau to require plaintiffs to put down $700,000 toward compensating GRT losses should the company win the suit. Chouteau agreed to a $10,000 bond, due next week. Alden, the GRT forest manager, noted in an affidavit filed with the court that no trees would be cut within 30 feet of the top of the river bank, and that within the select harvest area, an average of 12.5 trees per acre would be taken, leaving 80 percent of the canopy cover in the logging zone nearest the river. He also noted that 24 regulators from different agencies took part in review of the logging plans, including inspections and development of guidelines for logging in riparian areas.

“Some nine agencies have already approved it,” said Santa Rosa attorney Doug Bosco, who appeared in court on behalf of GRT on Wednesday. “It went through three separate public comment periods. The government’s response is over 300 pages to every aspect of commentary on the project, and I feel that everything that could be done to make it a really good project has been done.”

He contended the forest was “vastly overgrown,” making the threat of wildfire the greatest risk to the landscape. Bosco, a former North Coast congressman, is a principal in Sonoma Media Investments, which owns The Press Democrat. He also serves as chairman of the California Coastal Conservancy. The logging plan has drawn sharp opposition from a variety of environmental and community interests who have fought continued commercial logging in the region’s coastal forests and, specifically, the Gualala River watershed. They claim the Dogwood project was poorly conceived and as evidence point to the state’s re-circulation of the plans three times.

“We believe, of course, that we made a strong case,” Larkspur attorney Ed Yates said, “and that once we get the record then we’ll really be able to prove our case.”

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