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Fog shrouds the watershed of the nearly 50,000-acre Jackson Demonstration State Forest on March 2, 2022, in Mendocino County. (Kent Porter / The Press Democrat)

For 70 years, a Mendocino forest has been used to promote logging. Is it time to change its mission?

MENDOCINO COAST — Even in the fading light of dusk, a 200-foot-tall redwood known as the “Mama Tree” is an exalted presence.

Her imposing height and girth show she has been on earth far longer than anyone who might find comfort in her shade.

Near her base, a downed log serves as an altar, displaying stones, a seashell, pictures, a pink crystal triangle and a bird’s lost feather — talismans left by visitors who travel along a well-used trail nearby.

In Mama Tree’s branches, 65 feet above ground, a tented wooden platform occupied by a variety of committed protesters last year is vacant, waiting, a long banner hanging just below it.

A sign hangs on the "Mama Tree" on Tuesday, Feb. 15, 2022, in the Jackson Demonstration State Forest near Caspar. (Kent Porter / The Press Democrat)
A sign hangs on the "Mama Tree" on Tuesday, Feb. 15, 2022, in the Jackson Demonstration State Forest near Caspar. (Kent Porter / The Press Democrat)

“Save and Protect Jackson State,” it says. “The Forest of the People.”

For more than a year, this spot in the sprawling Jackson Demonstration State Forest has become a rallying point in an intensifying battle over the future of the nearly 50,000-acre expanse of public land, an area nearly twice as large as the city of San Francisco.

The forest, which extends east from the central Mendocino Coast about 100 miles northwest of Santa Rosa, was set aside seven decades ago to extol the virtues of responsible logging.

Now, however, activists say it’s time to rethink its purpose. Each massive redwood that is cut down can no longer absorb and store carbon from the atmosphere and becomes one less weapon in the battle against climate change.

Jackson Demonstration State Forest (Cal Fire)
Jackson Demonstration State Forest (Cal Fire)

‘Here for different reasons’

The Mama and nearby Papa trees are second-generation redwoods, more than 100 years old, and should have been casualties by now. Two years ago, they were marked to be cut, along with neighboring trees.

Mendocino resident Michelle McMillan, 26, pauses between the trees at the foot of a grove of redwoods on Feb. 15, 2022, that includes "Mama Tree" where activists during the summer of 2021, in the Jackson Demonstration State Forest near Caspar. (Kent Porter / The Press Democrat)
Mendocino resident Michelle McMillan, 26, pauses between the trees at the foot of a grove of redwoods on Feb. 15, 2022, that includes "Mama Tree" where activists during the summer of 2021, in the Jackson Demonstration State Forest near Caspar. (Kent Porter / The Press Democrat)

But activists who confronted loggers in June 2021 forced Cal Fire to suspend timber cutting in this part of the forest near the coastal hamlet of Caspar, out of concern for public safety.

The activists don’t intend to stop there.

A coalition of community members, environmentalists and tribal representatives hopes to persuade the state to halt logging in the forest altogether so it can be fully dedicated to carbon sequestration (the process of capturing and storing carbon) and climate research.

“I know that in my lifetime I will see catastrophic impacts from climate change. That’s why I’m out here doing everything I can.” - activist Sara Rose

In addition, they support tribal efforts to secure rights to co-manage the forest, which is on land the Pomo hold sacred.

“We’re all here for different reasons,” said 15-year-old activist Sara Rose of Fort Bragg.

“A lot of people are here because we’re acknowledging the land ... was stolen away from the Pomo. Others just love the redwood ecosystem, and it’s a huge part of our ecosystem. And lot of people are here because of the climate crisis,” she said.

“I know that in my lifetime I will see catastrophic impacts from climate change. That’s why I’m out here doing everything I can,” she said.

Mendocino resident Michelle McMillan, 26, another leader in the movement, put it another way.

“Across the country, across the world, we’re having this whole global moment. Do we want to be part of this?” McMillan said.

“Forest defense matters because you can’t really argue over the value of a tree once the tree is fallen,” she said. “When the community is saying these trees are worth more standing, it makes sense to keep them standing until you can reach the end of the debate.”

It’s a tricky issue.

Sunlight filters through the forest canopy on Road 500 in the Jackson Demonstration State Forest near Caspar on Friday, Feb. 11, 2022.  (Kent Porter / The Press Democrat)
Sunlight filters through the forest canopy on Road 500 in the Jackson Demonstration State Forest near Caspar on Friday, Feb. 11, 2022. (Kent Porter / The Press Democrat)

For more than 70 years, a legislative framework and established policies have defined Jackson’s primary role as a “demonstration forest” to be timber production and research and innovation on harvest methods that could be measured and applied to other timberlands.

The forest was established in 1949 to reestablish timber on land from which virgin redwood had been clear-cut for some 80 years by the defunct Caspar Lumber Co.

Timber sales support operations at Jackson and eight other state demonstration forests, bringing in an average $6.6 million a year between 2011 and 2020. Timber harvests provide scores of local logging and milling jobs, as well.

Room for improvement

It would require a change in state law to change the status as a “demonstration forest,” California Secretary of Natural Resources Wade Crowfoot said.

But Crowfoot said there remains “a lot of room for improvement” short of that, including greater partnership with local tribes and more engagement with residents and recreational communities.

“I’m not confident the demonstration forest is demonstrating anything of substance.” - state Sen. Mike McGuire

In a sign that the growing anxiety on the coast has reached Sacramento, he also noted that Cal Fire, which oversees the forest, was beginning a midterm review of the 2016 forest management plan, which normally wouldn’t be due for an update until 2026.

Joe Dishman of Ukiah attends a community walk through of the Jackson Demonstration State Forest near Caspar as the group talks with officials from Cal Fire about the Caspar 500 Timber Harvest Plan on Friday, Feb. 11, 2022. (Kent Porter / The Press Democrat)
Joe Dishman of Ukiah attends a community walk through of the Jackson Demonstration State Forest near Caspar as the group talks with officials from Cal Fire about the Caspar 500 Timber Harvest Plan on Friday, Feb. 11, 2022. (Kent Porter / The Press Democrat)

In November, Mendocino County supervisors voted unanimously to ask Gov. Gavin Newsom and Crowfoot’s agency to evaluate logging on the forest in the context of state climate goals, carbon capture potential and wildfire resiliency.

“I’m certainly open and willing to discuss how we continue to update the mission, the work of the Jackson forest, given the emergency of accelerating climate change,” Crowfoot said.

North Coast state Sen. Mike McGuire, D-Healdsburg, whose district encompasses the forest, went further, saying “I’m not confident the demonstration forest is demonstrating anything of substance.”

“The Jackson State Demonstration Forest has an antiquated model,” he said. “It may have been useful in the late 1940s, but I think this entire model must be updated to combat the realities that we live in. The forest must be focused on climate and wildfires and forest resilience.”

During a town hall Wednesday, McGuire said he expected new developments on the subject soon. He did not elaborate.

Bringing the forest back

At 48,652 acres, Jackson is far and away the largest of the state’s nine demonstration forests, each of which represents one of the most common forest types in California. Combined, they total 72,000 acres.

The Jackson forest contains many tree species, but coastal redwoods — mostly second-growth — prevail. Pockets of old-growth redwoods totaling 461 acres are off-limits to logging.

Sara Rose takes an impromptu measurement of a felled redwood tree in the The Red Tail Timber Harvest Plan (west) located in the Jackson Demonstration State Forest on Tuesday, Feb. 15, 2022. (Kent Porter / The Press Democrat)
Sara Rose takes an impromptu measurement of a felled redwood tree in the The Red Tail Timber Harvest Plan (west) located in the Jackson Demonstration State Forest on Tuesday, Feb. 15, 2022. (Kent Porter / The Press Democrat)

Signs of early logging remain visible throughout the forest, but Cal Fire, short for the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, has largely succeeded in bringing the forest back.

The Caspar-area logging plan, known as the Caspar 500, under which the Mama and Papa trees were marked, would remove about one in 10 of the very largest trees, 48 inches in diameter or more. (Cal Fire unmarked the two iconic trees and other redwoods along the heavily used Blue Gum Trail in response to citizen complaints last year.)

Allowing one in 10 of the biggest trees to be harvested "doesn’t mean we are taking all the large trees off the landscape,” said State Forests Program Manager Kevin Conway.

However, the very removal of a tree releases carbon dioxide and invites disturbance of the forest floor, beneath which substantial portions of carbon are sequestered in roots, tiny plants and micro-organisms.

Forest operations staff counter that current management still has a net positive effect on the climate, promoting forest renewal and growth, and increasing carbon sequestration over time by ensuring a mix of large, older trees and vigorously growing younger ones.

Cal Fire says the forest already stores an estimated 19 million metric tons of carbon and is sequestering another 200,000 metric tons a year as the forest grows — enough to offset the annual emissions from 19,000 average California residents.

“Just doing nothing with them … is not always the best solution.” - State Forests Program Manager Kevin Conway

Most of the logging is either “single selection,” where individual trees are chosen to be cut, or “group selection,” in which up to a quarter acre will be cleared to allow light to reach the forest floor for a new generation of trees, Conway said.

Stands of trees are typically left alone for 30 years or more.

Strategic tree removal is critical to maintaining forest health because it lessens crowding and competition for sun, water and nutrients, allowing them to become more resilient to disease, powerful winds and wildfire, Conway said.

Models show removing trees from a stand of midsize trees allows those that are left to grow larger than they would have otherwise, he said.

“Just doing nothing with them … is not always the best solution,” he said.

Conway and others also highlighted the value of “a living laboratory” for testing and improving logging practices. In the Caspar Creek watershed, long-term research on water quality and stream flow, riparian plant and animal communities, sediment loading and other issues provides valuable information that is used worldwide.

“The state looks to natural and working lands, which includes managed forest, as really the workhorse of the carbon sequestration strategy,” Conway said. “Everything else is about limiting emissions or preventing emissions.”

Unexpected opposition

Conway and others said they were surprised when opposition arose to what Cal Fire viewed as routine logging plans about two years ago. But Conway said he also understands how it happened.

When cornflower-blue spray paint stripes began appearing on trees along popular hiking and cycling routes off Caspar Orchard Road, all who saw them knew those trees were to be cut down.

Over the previous 10 or 12 years, Cal Fire had mostly logged in more remote areas of the forest, Conway said.

But just as the COVID-19 pandemic was sending more and more people onto public lands, the agency was preparing to log in areas close to coastal communities and tourist destinations.

Michelle McMillan climbs down from a small log deck of felled trees in the The Red Tail Timber Harvest Plan (east) located in the Jackson Demonstration State Forest on Tuesday, Feb. 15, 2022.  (Kent Porter / The Press Democrat)
Michelle McMillan climbs down from a small log deck of felled trees in the The Red Tail Timber Harvest Plan (east) located in the Jackson Demonstration State Forest on Tuesday, Feb. 15, 2022. (Kent Porter / The Press Democrat)

“All of a sudden people were seeing massive trees — they’re second growth, but they’re essentially massive trees in their backyard — marked for cutting,” said Chad Swimmer, co-founder and former president of the Mendocino Trail Stewards. “And that’s when people started to get mad.”

In addition, Conway said, efforts to decommission logging roads near streams and waterways and build them at higher elevations brought additional attention to logging operations, he said.

And continuing growth in the number of mountain bikers flocking to the area meant more people became aware of a slope just off a road southeast of Caspar that had been all but clear-cut a few years back, generating more fury.

“When I heard the redwoods of Caspar 500 were being cut, I thought, ‘Oh, well, this is my moment,’ “ said Sara Rose, the 15-year-old co-founder of Mendocino County Youth for Climate.

But the fight “has never been about the two or three trees that have a sit (platform) in them, or the Caspar 500, or just the coast side of the forest,” she said. “The plan has to reflect the reality of the climate crisis and the sovereignty of the indigenous people.”

The landscape is still recovering from abuses long past, when ancient coastal redwoods, once abundant across more than 2 million acres of Northern California, were nearly decimated.

Matilda Hernandez Ramirez,  from left, Michelle McMillan and Sara Rose hike through a hack and squirt cut in the Jackson Demonstration State Forest on Tuesday, Feb. 15, 2022, at Chamberlain Creek. (Kent Porter / The Press Democrat)
Matilda Hernandez Ramirez, from left, Michelle McMillan and Sara Rose hike through a hack and squirt cut in the Jackson Demonstration State Forest on Tuesday, Feb. 15, 2022, at Chamberlain Creek. (Kent Porter / The Press Democrat)

In a 26-page position paper on the issue, climate scientist John P. O’Brien, who holds dual posts with the National Center for Atmospheric Research and the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, made a point-by-point case for the end of logging in Jackson forest.

The forest, he wrote, “is primarily second growth Redwood forest and has the potential to store far and away more carbon than any forest type in the world and is actually now rarer than old growth due to the absence of environmental protections.”

Protecting Jackson forest “should be seen as a form of self-preservation by all Californians that transcends party lines,” he wrote.

A spider spins a web in the Jackson Demonstration State Forest on March 2, 2022, in Mendocino County near Caspar. (Kent Porter / The Press Democrat)
A spider spins a web in the Jackson Demonstration State Forest on March 2, 2022, in Mendocino County near Caspar. (Kent Porter / The Press Democrat)

He and other advocates say converting Jackson forest from timberland to environmental preserve fits neatly into Newsom’s embrace of the global “30 by 30” initiative.

In October 2020, Newsom, by executive order, set California on a path toward protecting 30% of the land and coastal waters by 2030 to preserve biodiversity and fight climate change.

Separate policies established in 2019 and ’20 promote government-to-government consultations between the state and tribal representatives over co-management and access to natural, state-owned lands within their ancestral territory.

Coyote Valley Letter to Governor_JDSF_1-31-2022 (2) (004).pdf

Coyote Valley Band of Pomos Chairman Michael Hunter already has begun consultations but said he fears negotiations are dragging so Caspar 500 can be cut first.

Though the harvest was suspended last summer, forest officials plan to send crews back into the 533-acre tract come April, once mandated surveys for federally protected northern spotted owls are completed.

Local sawmill owner Chris Baldo is still waiting to make good on the largely uncut timber he bought for more than $2.8 million last year, and he and Anderson Logging owner Myles Anderson went to pains to keep their crews employed when the Caspar site was closed.

“Someone’s going to get hurt out there, and I don’t think it’s going to be any of the workers, the loggers.” - Coyote Valley Band of Pomos Chairman Michael Hunter

Controversial harvest operations elsewhere in the forest through winter kept tensions high among protesters, who remained active, however.

There have been road blockades, rallies and disrupted public meetings. Six protesters were cited after being subjected to citizens arrests by loggers Jan. 10 in the 345-acre “Red Tail” timber harvest area east of Fort Bragg, in the Noyo River watershed.

Hunter, the Pomo tribal chairman, said he’s deeply concerned about what comes next if state officials don’t impose a moratorium.

“Someone’s going to get hurt out there, and I don’t think it’s going to be any of the workers, the loggers,” Hunter said. “I think you’re going to have elderly white women out there who are willing to die for those trees, and I don’t think they (officials) understand the magnitude.”

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

Basics on Jackson Demonstration State Forest

Where: Mendocino County

Area: 48,652 acres

Established: 1949

What: One of nine California state “demonstration forests,” totaling 72,000 acres and representing the most common forest types in the state. The forests are used to test different forest treatments through time, provide research and demonstration opportunities for natural resource management, as well as recreational opportunities, fish and wildlife habitat and watershed protection.

Forest management: Handled by Cal Fire under the California Department of Natural Resources

Source: Cal Fire

_____

Cal Fire officials are hosting community, walk-and-talk tours of the controversial Caspar 500 timber harvest plan from 1 p.m. to 4 p.m. on Saturday, March 12 and Tuesday, March 29.

Participants can ask questions about timber operations and the Caspar 500 plan, specifically, and offer input about their own concerns.

The tours involve driving and walking short distances in the forest, beginning at the “Caspar Scales” Parking lot on Caspar Orchard Road/Road 500.

Caspar500Tour.PDF

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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