Disputed Gualala River logging plan stalled pending revised study

The 330-acre project submitted by Gualala Redwood Timber will need to be revised before it earns a pass from a judge, and there is likely more courtroom action ahead in any case.|

A disputed 2-year-old plan to log along several miles of the Gualala River floodplain remains in limbo five months after a Sonoma County judge nullified its approval and sent it back to state forestry officials for revision and additional public review.

Acting on a lawsuit brought by environmental groups, Superior Court Judge Rene Chouteau ruled in January that the 330-acre project was deficient because it failed to account for the cumulative impacts of a different logging plan in development when the proposal at issue was first submitted.

It’s not clear just how much revision of the so-called Dogwood plan submitted by Gualala Redwood Timber will be necessary before it earns a pass from the judge, and there is likely more courtroom action ahead in any case.

“I think everyone expects that this is the first round of litigation,” said Eric Huff, forestry practice chief with Cal Fire, the state forestry agency.

Chouteau’s formal order, filed April 18, gave Cal Fire wide discretion to determine how broadly the Dogwood harvest plan should be reconsidered.

Larkspur attorney Ed Yates, who represents several environmental groups trying to block logging in the floodplain, said it would behoove Gualala Redwood Timber to substantially adjust its plan, given the many objections plaintiffs have lodged against it.

The Dogwood proposal “is legally inadequate in many different areas: plants, endangered species, water quality, climate change, alternatives, mitigations,” Yates said.

“We think there’s an enormous amount wrong with it,” he said. “The judge didn’t rule on any of that, but if Cal Fire doesn’t fix any of that … then we will continue to litigate the other items, as well.”

Huff said it should be enough for the logging company to amend and recirculate only the cumulative impacts section of its proposal, though he acknowledged the company could decide to broaden its scope.

“It’s up to them,” Huff said. “They could withdraw the plan and never go back there … But from our perspective, if they deal with the one issue as they should, then that’s all they really need to address, unless we find something else.”

GRT Forest Manager Charll Stoneman said the failure of the Dogwood plan to make reference to the other forthcoming proposal, called German South, was because of the fact that the former landowners made that application before the second plan was fully formed. Failure to include it later was an oversight during the transition, he said.

Plans to log along the river, which meets the ocean in the town of Gualala and forms part of the Sonoma-Mendocino county line, came to light in 2015, shortly after a failed bid by conservation interests to purchase nearly 30,000 acres of mixed timberland along the river, adjoining Gualala Point Regional Park. Among other things, the group hoped to expand the park, taking in a stand of large redwoods that was included in the logging plan.

Instead, the property was sold to the Roger Burch family, which formed Gualala Redwood Timber, and proceeded with harvest plans initiated by the former owner. The project covers an area logged in the past and includes stands of large second-growth redwood trees, some of which are a century old.

The state granted approval for the Dogwood plan last July and logging began weeks later. A group that included Forests Unlimited, Friends of the Gualala River and the California Native Plant Society sued Cal Fire for approving what they said was a deficient plan.

About 17 percent of the harvest was completed when Chouteau agreed to suspend operations last September pending resolution of the suit.

Chouteau gave Cal Fire until mid-September to correct the deficiencies and recirculate the plan for public review.

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

Mary Callahan

Environment and Climate Change, The Press Democrat

I am in awe of the breathtaking nature here in Sonoma County and am so grateful to live in this spectacular region we call home. I am amazed, too, by the expertise in our community and by the commitment to protecting the land, its waterways, its wildlife and its residents. My goal is to improve understanding of the issues, to find hope and to help all of us navigate the future of our environment. 

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