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.