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Disputed Gualala logging plan earns second approval from state

A controversial plan to log miles of Gualala River floodplain, including nearly century-old redwood trees just outside Gualala Point Regional Park, is back on track, setting the stage for a showdown in court or perhaps among the trees themselves.

Charll Stoneman, forest manager for Gualala Redwood Timber, which owns the land, said logging won't begin until at least mid-May - after completion of final surveys required to ensure the absence of breeding Northern spotted owls, which are listed as threatened under the Endangered Species Act.

But Stoneman said he thinks the revised plan is “bulletproof,” given additions requested by Cal Fire, the state forestry agency, which eventually approved the document. If a judge intervenes, then “we wait for Cal Fire, and go on from there,” Stoneman said.

“Ultimately, the expectation is that, in time, we'll harvest,” he said. “It's just a matter of when.”

But opponents - after thwarting attempts to log the area once already by convincing a judge the timber harvest plan failed to analyze environmental impacts fully - sued Cal Fire again this month, just days after the agency renewed its approval.

There is quiet talk of civil disobedience to block operations in the 342-acre harvest area if a judge doesn't stop it first. Critics already have staged monitors around the area at least twice since the plan was approved March 30 to listen for the sound of chainsaws that would signal logging had started.

“We were prepared to protest, if necessary,” said Charlie Ivor, president of Friends of the Gualala River, the chief plaintiff. “This is an egregiously organized timber harvest plan that is unprecedented, and it's the community's last chance to save these trees.”

The logging plan, called “Dogwood,” is one of several submitted in recent years for property just upstream from the town of Gualala, along the winding river that forms the Sonoma-Mendocino county line.

It was first proposed by Gualala Redwoods Inc., which three years ago sold nearly 30,000 acres of coveted timberland to the Roger Burch family and its company, San Jose-based Pacific States Industries.

Burch, who wanted the property to supply logs for the Redwood Empire Sawmills in Cloverdale and Philo, which he also owns, outbid a consortium of conservation groups who wanted the property for park expansion and watershed restoration.

Gualala Redwood Timber company was formed at the time of the purchase and pursued several new and pending logging plans after the sale, eventually starting work on Dogwood in 2016, despite continued opposition from logging foes.

About 17 percent of the intended logging was completed before Sonoma County Superior Court Judge Rene Chouteau suspended the work in September 2016 so he could consider a legal challenge filed by Friends of the Gualala River, Forests Unlimited and other nonprofit organizations.

In early 2017, Chouteau ruled the plan was deficient in analyzing impacts of past and pending plans to cut timber in the area, and sent it back to Cal Fire for revisions needed to bring it into compliance.

The revised plan includes additional information about past and future logging foreseen by both GRT and other timber operators. It also excludes two previously proposed harvest sites on a portion of riverfront subject to special treatment because of its designation as a state wild and scenic river, according to Cal Fire. The overall harvest area has declined from 402 acres to 342 acres.

But those fighting the plan say the revised project remains deficient in its assessment of risks and potential impacts, which they claim could further degrade a watershed already considered impaired under the federal Clean Waters Act because of high temperature and excessive sediment after a century of logging.

They say the new activity risks ongoing efforts to protect habitat for endangered coho salmon, threatened steelhead trout, red-legged frogs and other flora and fauna.

Stoneman, echoing other forest managers before him, pointed to safeguards in state logging rules that govern all aspects of timberland operations, including seasonal considerations and specific regulations that prohibit logging within 30 feet of the stream bank. They also mandate enough trees be left to maintain 80 percent of the tree canopy overhead and require crews to leave the 13 largest trees in each acre of floodplain untouched.

He said the harvest area, much of it clearcut at the turn of the last century, now has such dense growth that no light can get through and the crowded trees can't gain any size.

“We're just, more or less, thinning from below,” taking the same approach any conservation group would take had it acquired the land, Stoneman said.

But after a three-year battle to stop removal of redwoods and other trees from a stretch of river many in the community eye for restoration and recreation, opponents appear nowhere ready to abandon their stance and say the river simply can't recover if the work is allowed to go forward.

“It isn't the number of trees” being cut, said Jeanne Jackson, a Gualala nature writer and vice president of Friends of the Gualala River. “It's how you get them out, and you extract them by dragging them along the ground. And this is the floodplain, with all the attendant beneficial creatures that live there.”

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

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