A cold, clear stream that provides some of the last refuge for wild coho salmon in Sonoma County lies at the center of a dispute over logging plans in the forested hills above Healdsburg.
The proposed removal of redwood and Douglas fir trees from a steep hill above Felta Creek and the Russian River Valley poses a risk, opponents say, to remaining habitat for an endangered fish species once abundant in the freshwater streams and rivers of the North Coast.
Some of the trees marked for harvest on the 160-acre property grow on grades of 65 percent — so steep that foes of the plan, including neighbors and several environmental groups, say it could unleash significant erosion into the creek if carried forward. They are prepared to go to court to block the proposed harvest, which is being studied by state forestry officials.
Last week, those officials kicked the proposal back to landowner Ken Bareilles and his forester for significant additions and revisions
For Bareilles, a Eureka attorney and logger who stands to collect a sizable return on his $2.5 million real estate investment — in property zoned for timber production — those who challenge his plans are wrong to worry.
Mandatory safeguards built into the harvest proposal, covering 146 acres, and additional measures imposed by state wildlife and water quality agencies will ensure the environment is protected and public safety concerns mitigated, Bareilles said.
After the logging is complete, he plans to sell the property, which is near the headwaters of Felta Creek, a tributary to the Russian River. His tentative asking price would be at least $2 million more than he paid for it.
“I’m in the timber business, but I’m also in the land business,” Bareilles said, noting that it’s in his own self-interest to ensure the woods and watershed are left in appealing, marketable condition.
Critics of the proposal include neighbors concerned about the watershed, as well as the effects of 40-ton logging trucks traveling daily on a narrow, partly private rocked road. It crosses the creek several times over older bridges and bends around the local grade school next to the road, they note.
Boulder-strewn Felta Creek runs alongside the road, under forest cover and past vineyards. The stretch of creek on Bareilles’ property features deep, shaded pools and gravel beds ideal for salmon nests, or redds.
Bareilles has agreed to provide pilot trucks to accompany logging trucks on the narrow roadway and haul logs around the school pickup and drop-off schedule.
Still, any bridge, road or slope failure would prove devastating to the waterway’s health, logging opponents say.
“We don’t get another chance” to protect it, said Bob Legge, policy and outreach coordinator for the Russian Riverkeeper, a conservation group. “This is one of those situations where you’ve got a pristine area of coho salmon habitat, and you really have to make sure to do this right.”
Forest Unlimited, a local environmental group critical of many North Coast timber operations, has also stepped forward in opposition to the proposal, which board member Larry Hanson called “really the very worst one that I’ve ever seen … (with) so many impacts.”
The project was dealt a major setback last week, however, when the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection withheld approval of the current version of the proposal. It had been through two review periods and was expected to get a green light.