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Sonoma County looks to entrepreneurs to help with forest management

As he walks around his 40-acre property in the hills near Healdsburg, Sam Salmon surveyed the damage from the Walbridge fire that ripped a path of fiery destruction through his forest land last summer.

Other than the redwoods, most of Salmon’s trees will not survive.

“It’s about 80% gone,” said Salmon, a Windsor town councilman. “They have names for these types of trees that don’t have any limbs, they call them ... bottle brush.”

Earlier, Salmon cut down some of his Madrone trees for fire wood, a project that he joked paid for the chainsaw. But he doesn’t know the next steps he may take to clear his forest, but he figures some of that may involve burningpiles of debris.

A neighbor, Fred Euphrat, will be doing salvage logging on the 400 acres he owns, also torched by the Walbridge fire. He will remove stems from the Douglas fir and redwoods, leaving the roots to regrow.

Salmon and Euphrat are two of the many Sonoma County owners of forest land and timber property who are grappling with the same thorny issue as casualties of the recent wildfires that swept through the North Coast over the past few years.

What do you do with all the wood that needs to be removed for proper forest management in an era of unprecedented wildfires?

Sonoma County Economic Development Board is attempting to help solve the vexing problem, adding to various efforts underway. They include Cal Fire clearing vegetation and PG&E cutting trees and brush around power lines, even using helicopter saws in remote areas to trim around transmission lines.

The economic development board has joined a partnership to sponsor a contest for entrepreneurs and existing companies to offer proposals to launch wood products businesses. The contest goal is to work toward healthier forests in Sonoma County, where there is about 513,000 acres of forest land.

The two winners in this biomass business competition each will receive a $35,000 grant to kickstart wood removal and reuse projects.

“It helps with the continued diversification of our economy, especially in times that we're seeing right now with COVID-19, where we're seeing such a hit to particular dominant industries here,” said Ethan Brown, director of business development and innovation at the economic development board.

To be sure, local leaders acknowledged the contest will not lead to a revitalization of the North Coast timber industry that flourished for decades until the 1970s when customer demand waned, mills closed and jobs vanished. What was left of the industry eroded further in the 1990s due to environmental concerns.

Right now, in Fort Bragg in Mendocino County, local officials are attempting to turn the old Georgia Pacific plant into a hospitality district. Nearby, the rail line that transported timber is the Skunk Train tourist attraction.

Still, there are thriving pockets of timber activity. In 2020, in Sonoma County 10.7 million board feet of timber was harvested at a value of $8.4 million. The vestiges of the once-thriving industry include the family-operated Parmeter Logging Inc. in Cazadero and Redwood Empire Sawmill in Cloverdale where Euphrat sends some of his logs.

The county biomass business contest builds on earlier efforts to cultivate a wood product market related to fire safety. In 2016, state Assemblyman Jim Wood, D-Santa Rosa, unveiled legislation that established a working group to expand the wood marketplace that utilizes wood biomass removed from wildfire zones.

The work has been met with pushback from environmental groups opposed to using wood biomass — the renewable energy from plants and animals — as fuel for power plants. The Sierra Club has claimed biomass electricity generation can’t compete with “cleaner forms of electric generation like natural gas, solar and wind” without government subsidies.

Brown said the new local wood biomass initiative is not focusing on electricity generation but on spurring small-scale businesses.

“It could be niche products, like you are making baseball bats, you are making paperweights, doorknobs ... a thing that doesn't need maybe big chunks of timber,” said Rob Bamford, an air pollution control officer with the Northern Sonoma County Air Pollution Control District, a partner in the grant competition.

The area supply of timber is vast and local residents are struggling with the ramifications. In Sonoma County, it is a more pressing issue because there are many small forest land owners like Salmon and Euphrat.

“This time it’s salvage logging with a goal of maintaining a good forest structure for the future,” said Euphrat, a retired forester who teaches the subject at Santa Rosa Junior College. “We are choosing the trees on a one-on-one basis.”

In other parts of Northern California, the federal government is the predominant landowner, with holdings such as the 913,306-acre Mendocino National Forest. Across California, the federal government owns 58% of the state’s 33 million acres of forest land, while the state owns 3% of it.

“If you ever looked at a parcel map of the county, it's incredibly personalized in that there's so many tiny little parcels, especially in the forest land areas,” said Robert Aguero, a senior environmental specialist with the county. “I think there's just not as much economic incentive to maybe do a traditional timber harvest. You kind of need to scale it.“

That’s the scenario land owners along St. Helena Road are facing as they attempt to clean up after the Glass fire last fall burned through their properties. One landowner customers in that area will generate more than 1 million board feet of salvaged lumber, said Mitch Haydon, vice president of Environmental Resource Solutions in Sebastopol, a forestry consulting firm.

“You can get into the hundreds of thousands of dollars in some of these jobs,” Haydon said, of the forest cleanup.

The extensive county forest management effort will require an increase in the workforce, Cal Fire Division Chief Ben Nicholls said, because there’s not enough hand crews. He oversees the Sonoma-Lake-Napa fire unit, which has more than 1 million acres of wooded area to help maintain to reduce the wildland fire threat there. Cal Fire is also a partner in the county biomass business competition.

Nicholls said the expense of hiring crews to remove excess vegetation and trim trees can be a few thousand dollars a day. Workforce development to handle that work on a broad basis is another major topic to address as part of the region’s fire prevention efforts, he said.

The biomass contest shows that the private sector can play a role in dealing with arguably the most pressing issue facing the region, maintaining forest land as the frequency and severity of wildland blazes escalates.

“The exciting part about the competition is that if there's a company or an entity that financially benefits from removing that (wood and vegetation) fuel from the landscape, then hopefully it makes it more conducive to average landowners to be able to help treat their landscape prior to those fire events,” Cal Fire’s Nicholls said.

You can reach Staff Writer Bill Swindell at 707-521-5223 or bill.swindell@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @BillSwindell.

Bill Swindell

Business, Beer and Wine, The Press Democrat  

In the North Coast, we are surrounded by hundreds of wineries along with some of the best breweries, cidermakers and distillers. These industries produce an abundance of drinks as well as good stories – and those are what I’m interested in writing. I also keep my eye on our growing cannabis industry and other agricultural crops, which have provided the backbone for our food-and-wine culture for generations.

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