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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.

Cal Fire forester Dominik Schwab issued a six-page request for additions, revisions and further study related to traffic impacts, bridge integrity, updated stream inventory and potential cumulative impacts on the coho salmon habitat.

The plan, once revised, will also be subject to another round of public review for a minimum if 30 days.

The notice from Cal Fire drew a strong response from Bareilles, who accused Schwab of having “chickened out” in the face of citizen complaints, and letting the “tail wag the dog.”

“Needless to say, I strongly oppose and totally resent your letter, which would lead to opening up this (timber harvest plan) for a new and additional public comment and big-time additional delays,” Bareilles wrote.

Ukiah-based forester Rancy Jacobzoon, who developed the plan, said he would meet with Cal Fire staff this week to clarify the new directives. But he conceded frustration with the latest development, blaming it on “a combination of inexperience by the Cal Fire staff, and the opposition.”

The National Marine Fisheries Service, whose mission includes the protection of imperiled fish species, identified Felta Creek as “the only stream in the Dry Creek watershed where wild coho salmon have been observed frequently.”

“There were two years where Felta was the only stream in the entire Russian River watershed that we knew coho existed,” said Mariska Obedzinski, a fisheries biologist with the California Sea Grant program who specializes in endangered salmon recovery.

Also clouding Bareilles’ project, at least for his opponents, is his history of land-use violations in Humboldt County. Bareilles was on felony probation for past land-use violations when, in 2012, he was convicted of multiple new violations, including illegal grading on land he owned, affecting fish and wildlife habitat, according to the state Department of Fish and Wildlife. The problems included impacts from road construction, soil stockpiled next to or in the stream channels, removal of riparian vegetation and poorly installed stream crossings, state officials said.

Dan Imhoff, who lives with his family not far from the edge of the logging area, said he respects Bareilles’ right to legally harvest timber from his land but opposes the scale of the existing proposal, which would include clearing several areas cut of all trees.

“All I ask is that people please walk this road, understand the value of the habitat, and then ask why they could possibly OK this plan to severely cut this steep hillside right next to the last salmon run that we have, and let them pull all these trucks down this tiny little canyon past a school, with no plan about what that’s going to look like,” Imhoff said.

You can reach Staff Writer Mary Callahan at 707-521-5249 or mary.callahan@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @MaryCallahanB.

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