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Armstrong Redwoods reopening delayed until late July due to post-fire tree removal

The million-plus people who flock each year to Armstrong Redwoods State Natural Reserve will have to wait for a refreshing walk beneath the trees until some time later this summer, state park officials said.

It will now be at least late July before the park near Guerneville can admit visitors because the front parking lot is needed as a helicopter landing zone to aid the removal of more than 1,000 burned and hazardous trees from up the hill — above the valley floor and the famed, old-growth redwood grove that park managers were preparing to reopen for the first time since the Walbridge fire ravaged the area last year.

“We were really hopeful that they were going to find another landing zone” — one outside park boundaries, said Michele Luna, executive director of the Stewards of the Coast and Redwoods, the small nonprofit that co-manages Armstrong Woods and adjoining Austin Creek State Recreational Area with state parks. “After all that we’ve done, it looks so beautiful. I want people to come and see it.”

Instead, the tree removal work, supervised by the state Office of Emergency Services, will require use of the entrance parking area. The complicated operation will see at least one helicopter delivering burned trees from remote parts of the two park properties, as well as some badly scarred areas like the Mill Creek canyon, to trucks on the ground, state parks Sonoma-Mendocino Coast District Superintendent Terry Bertels said.

“Outside of what needs to be done with tree and hazardous waste removal, we’re in pretty good shape in the grove,” Bertels said. “But we can’t put people in there with truck and helicopters flying around.”

The continued closure during what is normally one of the busiest times of year is a blow to the Stewards, especially coming after extended suspension of park operations last year due to the coronavirus pandemic.

Losing June and July visitors means the nonprofit will have to forfeit about $100,000 in critical revenue while still catching up for shortfalls from last year and funding is still needed to make certain post-fire repairs.

The tree removal also will delay fire recovery work at Bullfrog Pond Campground in the 5,700-acre Austin Creek recreation area, for which no reopening date has been scheduled, Luna said.

The 55,209-acre Walbridge fire, part of the larger LNU Lightning Complex, started Aug. 17 in a remote area of Sonoma County not far from Austin Creek, blackening much of the state recreation area as well as two-thirds of the 805-acre Armstrong Redwood reserve.

But fire crews fought hard to safeguard beloved, thousand-year-old trees on the valley floor, particularly the Parson Jones Tree and the Colonel Armstrong Tree.

Park naturalists have since reported that the slow-moving fire that moved through the grove proved beneficial, prompting rejuvenation and new sprouting that has beautified the area, which now has new fencing and signs, as well.

The Stewards of the Coast and Redwoods had hoped to have the grove open for Memorial Day weekend but had to postpone because of hazardous waste that still needed to be removed from building sites accessed through the park.

The hazardous tree count has since grown, as well, and surveys were still underway Thursday, Bertels said.

The helicopter removal is to begin in mid-June and continue until at least mid-July, Bertels said.

He said it’s clear not everyone knows the park is closed, given the frequency with which folks are seen driving to the gate and having to turn back.

But “I’d say at this point we’re looking at a late July opening of Armstrong Woods Grove,” Bertels said.

Anyone who would like to contribute to the fire recovery work can do so through stewardscr.org/fire-recovery.

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

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