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Protecting a forest

$6.1 million conservation easement covering 1,380 acres in northwestern Sonoma County

$4.5 million from Sonoma County Agricultural Preservation and Open Space District

$1.6 million from grants by the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation, the San Francisco Foundation and California State Parks’ Habitat Conservation Fund


ANNAPOLIS - Deep in northwestern Sonoma County’s thickly forested mountains, about 10 miles from the coast and a world away from the bustle of any population center, Mike Young walked beneath a towering canopy of redwood and Douglas fir trees he’s come to know well over the past several decades.

He was leading a small group last week on a tour of his remote property, an expanse of forest that feels untouched. The trees were too numerous to count and soared hundreds of feet into the sky.

Young stopped at one about 16 feet in diameter — so big that, when three people linked arms around it, they couldn’t get halfway around. Its height and age are a mystery.

“It just goes on and on and on,” Young said, guessing it stands more than 250 feet tall and is several thousand years old.

The tree is in good company here on a string of properties acquired by members of the Howlett family beginning in 1949. The owners allowed only selective logging over the years, Young said. Spikes still stand out from tree trunks where the late George Howlett designated areas where logging couldn’t occur.

“Every time they cut a tree, it was like cutting a piece of his arm off,” Young said of George Howlett. When they did harvest trees, it was carefully done.

“You could go in afterward and hardly tell where they’d been cutting,” Young said.

The result is this 1,380-acre property still encompasses a dense collection of massive trees, including old-growth redwoods, that are hard to find anywhere else in Sonoma County. So rare, in fact, that in late February, county supervisors — in their role as directors of the Agricultural Preservation and Open Space District — approved paying $4.5 million to eliminate development rights on the private property. The $6.1 million easement deal, including private and public grant money secured by the Sonoma Land Trust, was completed in April.

The deal ensures Howlett Forest, as it’s known, will remain undeveloped for generations to come. But public access isn’t envisioned — at least not anytime soon.

In this case, preservation of a special forest was the priority.

“We do many projects that have public access. This one of what we call our natural resources projects,” said Bill Keene, the Open Space District’s general manager. “What does the community get from this? Well, in the face of climate change, this is the type of land that sequesters carbon. It cleans our air, water — the water that we drink. It provides habitat for wildlife species that need a large range.”

No money for road

Within its bounds, Howlett Forest has more than 2,560 trees greater than four feet in diameter, including 870 redwood trees with a diameter greater than five feet, according to the Open Space District. It has creek corridors that haven’t been logged and it contains headwaters of two of the five main tributaries to the Gualala River, home to salmon and steelhead trout.

Howlett Forest is also surrounded by other massive properties that are already protected, including nearly 20,000-acre Buckeye Forest in Sonoma County — the former Preservation Ranch — and 14,000-acre Gualala River Forest in Mendocino County. Both are owned by The Conservation Fund, a nonprofit group that’s secured a large swath of North Coast forest for protection and restoration. It funds work partly through sale of carbon credits and low-impact logging.

Public access to this corner of the county is difficult. Getting to Howlett Forest requires access to Kelly Road, a privately owned unpaved route. Public access would require investment in the road, including possibly a purchase and significant upgrades, according to Keene. He wasn’t aware of any interest from county officials to take on the liability of road ownership.

“When they’re scrambling to cobble together money to just pave the roads that we have, they’re not in the business of adding new roads,” Keene said.

A 9-year effort

Board of Supervisors chairwoman Shirlee Zane said she’d normally prefer to see public access on a property as large as Howlett Forest, but she was satisfied with the reasons used to justify the easement purchase.

“I understand the importance of maintaining timberlands,” Zane said. “This is all about natural resources and conservation. It’s not always going to have public access.”

Supervisor Lynda Hopkins, whose district includes Howlett Forest, called its protection an “exciting thing for future generations.”

“After I went there, I took my kids to Armstrong Redwoods, which I love and which is a fantastic and beautiful community asset,” Hopkins said during the February board meeting. “But it kind of pales in comparison when you’ve actually seen a truly pristine, sort of untouched, old-growth redwood forest.”

For Young, the easement concludes a yearslong effort to get the forest officially protected. He first tried getting it done following George Howlett’s 2008 death, but the first effort fell through, after which he eventually enlisted help from the Sonoma Land Trust and the Open Space District.

Howlett legacy secured

Following the death of George Howlett’s brother, Jim, in 2014, Young became the sole trustee of the partnership that owns the property.

Proceeds from the sale aren’t benefiting Young personally, he said. Rather, the money is being used to pay off bills he accrued while trying to secure the conservation deal and to support the surviving members of the Howlett family.

His personal connection to the property stretches back to the 1970s, when he met the Howlett brothers while working for a wholesale sheet metal business in Berkeley that was next door to their machine shop. Young worked with them, and George Howlett brought him to visit the forest property.

Young liked the landscape so much he started coming up almost every weekend, eventually on his own. The Howletts in the 1980s asked Young if he’d like to build a cabin on their property. He still uses the cabin he built in the forest.

Of late, he just wanted to get the easement done “to preserve the trees.”

“George always wanted it. And Jim. They both wanted it and they never got it put through,” Young said. “When George passed, I figured the only way it’s gonna get done is if I do it. And I don’t want to see them cut down, either.”

You can reach Staff Writer J.D. Morris at 707-521-5337 or jd.morris@pressdemocrat.com.