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224-acre logging plan above Russian River near Guerneville awaiting approval

A plan to log 224 acres of steep land above the Russian River, on the outskirts of Guerneville and Monte Rio, is expected to win approval in the coming days despite heavy opposition from residents and activists alarmed by the project’s proximity to rural communities and the natural landscape that draws tourists there.

Representatives for the Roger Burch family, which owns the property and the Redwood Empire Sawmill in Cloverdale — where logs from the Silver Estates timber harvest would be milled — said the forest is overstocked and badly in need of thinning to promote the growth of larger trees and reduce excess fuels.

But opponents say they remain unsatisfied by the planning process and have myriad outstanding concerns — everything from effects on wildlife habitat to soil stability, wildfire risks and visual impacts.

They say the plan is governed by “outdated” forest practice rules that fail to account for climate change and heightened wildfire risks where wildland abuts or mixes with settled areas.

“I still feel like we’re living with the legacy of Stumptown, and we still have to make amends,” said John Dunlap, a leader of the local Guerneville Forest Coalition. Stumptown was the nickname acquired by the community during the logging boom at the turn of the 20th century, when timber from the area helped rebuild San Francisco after the 1906 earthquake and fires. “It’s sort of like we’re not really listening to what the environment is telling us.”

The land at issue rises above Neeley Road across from Guernewood Park, about three-quarters of a mile south of Guerneville, then doglegs along Mays Canyon Road back toward the river area across from Northwood Golf Club at the edge of Monte Rio. It is zoned for timber production and needs to be managed properly if it is to retain its value, said Nick Kent, resource manager for Redwood Empire Sawmill.

Map of the general vicinity of the proposed Silver Estates timber harvest project in western Sonoma County.  (Guerneville Forest Coalition)
Map of the general vicinity of the proposed Silver Estates timber harvest project in western Sonoma County. (Guerneville Forest Coalition)

Timber harvest rules and the company’s own desire to minimize its impact mean crews will bypass the steepest, most landslide-prone slopes and leave buffer zones along the river, while logging selectively, Kent said.

“It’s a pretty light-touch harvest plan,” he said.

A representative for Supervisor Lynda Hopkins who toured the area with Kent this winter agreed.

“It respects and protects the ecosystem while allowing for needed thinning for forest health, fire protection, and return on investment for the landowners,” said Elise VanDyne said, the field representative for Hopkins, whose 5th District takes in the area.

At the same time, Hopkins shared reservations on the process used to approve the project and wants to ensure that all concerns about the impacts on the environment and infrastructure have been adequately addressed by Cal Fire before the project moves forward.

“While we are glad to hear that the historic Clar Tree will not be logged, we have heard compelling arguments about the need for expanding the current buffer zone to protect the tree,” Hopkins said Tuesday, after this story was published. “Additionally, we have heard community concerns about potential impacts to the 116 scenic view corridor, which we believe merits additional investigation.”

Sonoma Land Trust Executive Director Eamon O’Byrne said he saw no “major threats to the surrounding ecosystem.”

“Given the unhealthy state of much of our forested lands in the county and fire danger and ecological impacts this situation represents, the Silver Estates (timber harvest plan) appears to be a responsible plan, and we said so to Nick,” O’Byrne said via email. “However, all THPs still provide latitude for a somewhat more intensive harvest in certain areas than would be preferred for a quick return of forest cover, and we encouraged Redwood Empire to stay the course in their stated intent to do this the right way.”

Opponents concerned about environmental risks

Members of the Guerneville Forest Coalition, formed last year after the timber harvest proposal was filed, still aren’t convinced the plan goes far enough to protect the neighboring landscape and its residents. They are prepared to fight the logging plan in court, if it comes to that, partnering with Forestville nonprofit Forest Unlimited to raise funds in case they need to sue.

The Burch family also own Gualala Redwood Timber, which has been locked in a legal battle with a community group since 2016 over a 342-acre timber harvest plan that takes in the floodplain near the mouth of the Gualala River. A state appeals court recently ruled in the project’s favor.

The Guerneville plan presents different issues, but former state Sen. Noreen Evans, a Santa Rosa attorney, already is poised to represent the coalition, according to a letter she submitted to Cal Fire opposing the plan on the group’s behalf.

In particular, Silver Estates foes worry about a deep-seated landslide complex in the area that they fear could be activated by logging and skid trails, potentially blocking Neeley Road and contributing to erosion and runoff into a river already designated as impaired under federal regulations for excess sediment.

Narrow Neeley Road is one way in and one way out in the winter, when the seasonal bridge at Vacation Beach comes out. The road already has significant drainage and slide issues, neighbors said. Residents are afraid additional slide issues could cut them off for extended periods, putting them in peril in an emergency, and inconveniencing them, at the least.

Though the prospect of heavy logging trucks on the narrow county road is chief among their concerns, the county’s transportation and public works director, Johannes Hoevertsz, said access would not stand in the way of the project.

““The roads will get some wear and tear, but they’re legal loads,” he said.

Opponents also argue that logging in the area, the slash and other debris left behind, and removal of dense tree growth and canopy cover that keep the forest moist will contribute to wildfire risk, threatening nearby homes and towns.

And they’re worried that logging the tree-covered hill that looms above Vacation Beach will mar the scenic properties that lure visitors to the tourist-dependents towns of Guerneville and Monte Rio, as well as putting the Highway 116 Scenic Corridor designation at risk.

“This timber harvest plan is occurring, basically, right next door to Guerneville,” Dunlap said.

Final decision looms

There’s also the matter of a roughly 2,000-year-old, 365-foot-tall redwood known as the Clar Tree, which stands within the boundaries of the timber harvest plan, though harvest operations would be prohibited within 75 feet of it.

Rick Coates, executive director of Forest Unlimited, said the buffer is insufficient, given the wildlife that inhabit the tree and the manner in which root-related fungi transmit nutrients to other trees. He said gaps opened in the tree cover also could open up wind corridors that expose the grand old tree to damage or windfall.

“We do not consider all these folks villains, nor do we oppose all logging,” Coates said. “There are just so many issues on this particular parcel, right next to Northwood and Dubrava, and close to all the tourist facilities. It’s just the wrong place to try to log.”

The proposal has passed two rounds of review by agencies that include the California Department of Fish and Wildlife, the North Coast Regional Water Quality Control Board, the California Geological Survey and Cal Fire.

A final decision on the plan, expected in mid-February, has been postponed once already, to March 5, because Cal Fire must first respond to more than 300 public comments before it can rule. Forester Dominik Schwab said he expected the agency would seek to postpone a second time this week.

“We’re still in the process of evaluating all of the concerns and the public comments and evaluating what’s in the harvest plan, what the mitigations are,” he said.

Guernewood Park resident Colin Baptie say he worries Cal Fire’s timber harvest rules written for large tracts of forestland “in the middle of nowhere” are simply the wrong tool to use to evaluate proposed logging so close to town.

“This shouldn’t be a cookie cutter process,” Baptie said. “It feels like Cal Fire should really take into account that this is not like every other harvest.”

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

EDITOR’S NOTE: This story has been revised to add comments from Supervisor Lynda Hopkins that she shared on Tuesday after the story was published.

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