Subscribe
A logging truck travels through Felta Creek Road property, May 23, 2022. Lucy Kotter, organizer, Friends of Felta Creek, has been monitoring damage along Felta Creek Road caused by logging trucks coming off the once forested hill owned by Ken Bareilles (Chad Surmick / The Press Democrat)

Landowner under fire for post-Walbridge salvage logging violations

To hear Ken Bareilles tell it, the worst thing to happen on his land west of Healdsburg since the 2020 Walbridge Fire was the felling of charred Douglas fir trees that now lie on the ground, dried and cracking, because there’s so little demand at the mills.

To hear his neighbors tell it, the worst thing to happen since the Walbridge Fire has been Ken Bareilles.

It’s not just the neighbors. He’s seen as a bad actor by environmental watchdogs, regulators and others who have watched his emergency timber operation unfold on 106 acres in the sensitive Felta Creek watershed. Set among lush redwoods and ferns, the creek is a last refuge for endangered coho salmon.

No trespassing signs hang at the entrance to Ken Bareilles, Felta Creek Road property, May 23, 2022. (Chad Surmick / The Press Democrat)
No trespassing signs hang at the entrance to Ken Bareilles, Felta Creek Road property, May 23, 2022. (Chad Surmick / The Press Democrat)

Bareilles, for his part, has a different take on the unauthorized creek crossing, the hillside erosion, the flowing sediment, the tractor driven into the bed of Felta Creek and the host of violations documented by three state regulatory agencies over the past year.

According to him, they are the result of bad luck, poor advice, miscommunication and the relentless griping from residents who object to him logging fire-damaged trees up the hill from their homes along a narrow, private road.

“Don’t be naive. I‘ve been doing this for 50 years. When neighbors start complaining, Cal Fire lets them wag the damn dog.” Ken Bareilles

He says Cal Fire and other agencies are only trying to pacify the critics by cracking down on him, and anyway, it’s only words and paper. So far there have been no fines or interference in his logging — though he remains under investigation by at least two state agencies. His one-year emergency logging permit, initially set to expire in October 2021, was even extended a year, like everyone else’s.

“Don’t be naive,” said Bareilles, a Eureka-based lawyer and licensed timber operator. “I‘ve been doing this for 50 years. When neighbors start complaining, Cal Fire lets them wag the damn dog … All these guys want to do is get the heat off their back.”

Bareilles, 80, may be the only one with such a generous view of his position.

Cal Fire, the California Department of Fish and Wildlife, and the North Coast Regional Water Quality Control Board have all documented environmental violations at the site over the past year that suggest disregard for state Forest Practice Rules and other environmental regulations.

(Healdsburg timber owner’s checkered land-use history followed him to Sonoma County)

Photos taken of the emergency timber operation above Felta Creek on land owned by Ken Bareilles on Nov. 4, 2021, about 11 days after more than 10 inches of rain saturated the area, according to Cal Fire. The forestry agency documented two violations that day related to ongoing issues with sediment flow and failed erosion control on the property. In this case, heavy equipment had been used after the storm to install water bars that, under state Forest Practice Rules, were required to have been installed before any "significant rain forecast event." (Cal Fire)
Photos taken of the emergency timber operation above Felta Creek on land owned by Ken Bareilles on Nov. 4, 2021, about 11 days after more than 10 inches of rain saturated the area, according to Cal Fire. The forestry agency documented two violations that day related to ongoing issues with sediment flow and failed erosion control on the property. In this case, heavy equipment had been used after the storm to install water bars that, under state Forest Practice Rules, were required to have been installed before any "significant rain forecast event." (Cal Fire)

His case also has gaps in the emergency process through which Cal Fire is required to authorize expedited, post-fire timber salvage operations in an increasingly wildfire-prone landscape.

The North Coast water quality board, in particular, is pursuing changes that would improve environmental protections, though there’s no indication updated rules would have made a difference in Bareilles’ case.

Agency records from Bareilles’ Felta Creek property document a host of violations including movement of soil in and around the creek to support an unpermitted road crossing last summer; failure to install robust erosion control measures in advance of extreme weather last fall; and inadequate drainage that allowed substantial runoff carrying silt and sediment into Felta Creek. On at least two occasions, Bareilles and his team failed to communicate with regulators, as required, about corrective action demanded of him.

“I mean, this guy’s racked up so many violations in the last 12 months or whenever he was able to start, and yet the state is telling us they’re powerless to revoke his permit.” Russian Riverkeeper Executive Director Don McEnhill

The totality “is unprecedented in my experience in 20 years of timber harvesting,” said Jim Burke, senior engineering geologist in the water quality control board’s forestry unit. “The number of violations issued by three agencies — I’ve never seen anything like that.”

Even the licensed timber operator Bareilles initially hired for the job, Matt Kreck, claims he resigned because his employer was “running rogue,” though Kreck is himself named as the violator in three notices from Cal Fire.

On April 12, Kreck informed Cal Fire he intended to quit, saying Bareilles had ordered him to remove required erosion control devices from the roadway in advance of forecast rain so he could show his property to prospective buyers. Kreck then was forced to hastily reconstruct them on the eve of wet weather.

The licensed timber operator for Healdsburg landowner Ken Bareilles resigned from the emergency timber removal, saying Bareilles' conduct put his own license at risk. (Cal Fire/Cal Trees)
The licensed timber operator for Healdsburg landowner Ken Bareilles resigned from the emergency timber removal, saying Bareilles' conduct put his own license at risk. (Cal Fire/Cal Trees)

Kreck wrote that Bareilles “(i)s negligent and running rogue with no regard to my LTO License (Licensed Timber Operator) responsible for his actions.” His letter was temporarily posted on Cal Fire’s Cal Trees website and later removed.

Kreck also rescinded his family’s permission for Bareilles to haul redwood logs across their Mill Creek Road property. That forced Bareilles to use the narrow, Felta Creek Road, a private lane that winds through the creek canyon.

Kreck declined to be interviewed beyond confirming the contents of the letter, citing his attorney’s advice. “I like to do clean work,” he said.

But Bareilles, who has since taken over as licensed timber operator of record, said he basically assumed the role last September after Kreck ran short of money and equipment. He said Kreck was new to the field, had gotten in over his head amid high demand for timber operators and then “everything he touched...turned to dog poop.”

In October, a record-breaking storm dumped more than 10 inches of rain on the area in 24 hours, leaving mud and debris flowing down the hillside, some of which got into Felta Creek. Cal Fire filed one notice of violation citing Kreck, whose responsibility as timber operator included specific erosion control measures.

Then Bareilles was cited in November for trying to fix the situation by using heavy equipment on a saturated landscape.

Photos taken of the emergency timber operation above Felta Creek on land owned by Ken Bareilles on Nov. 4, 2021, about 11 days after more than 10 inches of rain saturated the area, according to Cal Fire. The forestry agency documented two violations that day related to ongoing issues with sediment flow and failed erosion control on the property. In this case, heavy equipment had been used after the storm to install water bars that, under state Forest Practice Rules, were required to have been installed before any "significant rain forecast event." (Cal Fire)
Photos taken of the emergency timber operation above Felta Creek on land owned by Ken Bareilles on Nov. 4, 2021, about 11 days after more than 10 inches of rain saturated the area, according to Cal Fire. The forestry agency documented two violations that day related to ongoing issues with sediment flow and failed erosion control on the property. In this case, heavy equipment had been used after the storm to install water bars that, under state Forest Practice Rules, were required to have been installed before any "significant rain forecast event." (Cal Fire)

“If I would have anticipated the amount of rain we were going to get, I would have made sure they were in right,” he says now.

He said his registered forester, who assembled the timber harvest plan, also led him into two violations, as well. The forester, Randy Jacobszoon of Ukiah, was unavailable for comment because he was on vacation.

Bareilles said that accruing violations is just something that happens, though he disputes their legitimacy and will challenge them in court, if it comes to that.

A logging truck sits on Ken Bareilles, Felta Creek Road property, May 23, 2022. Lucy Kotter, organizer, Friends of Felta Creek, has been monitoring damage along Felta Creek Road caused by logging trucks coming off the once forested hill owned by Ken Bareilles (Chad Surmick / The Press Democrat)
A logging truck sits on Ken Bareilles, Felta Creek Road property, May 23, 2022. Lucy Kotter, organizer, Friends of Felta Creek, has been monitoring damage along Felta Creek Road caused by logging trucks coming off the once forested hill owned by Ken Bareilles (Chad Surmick / The Press Democrat)

“I’ve been sued by the (district attorney) a couple of dozen times for logging violations, but those are correctable,” he said. “You correct them and move on.”

Bareilles is only allowed to log his Felta Creek property because of the lightning-sparked Walbridge Fire, part of the LNU Lightning Complex that erupted across five counties beginning Aug. 17, 2020.

(Forested Sonoma County enclave laid bare by Walbridge fire — and now, by salvage logging)

Three years before the fire, neighbors tried to stop himand eventually succeeded — when he first filed plans to log most of 160 acres he and his wife, Linda, had purchased for $2.5 million in 2015.

The property is zoned for timber production, and they planned to make money off the stock of redwoods and Douglas firs, then resell the land for home sites, Bareilles said in 2017.

But neighbors and environmental interests put up a fight, citing the steep grade at which some of the logging was to be performed above Felta Creek, a cold, clear stream that provides spawning grounds for coho and threatened steelhead trout.

Critics also had concerns about public safety and wear and tear on narrow Felta Creek Road, which connects Bareilles’ hillside property with Felta Road and, beyond, to Westside Road.

The graveled road, after more than a year of logging, is covered in several inches of fine, pulverized soil like talcum powder on the final stretch to Bareilles’ land. It follows Felta Creek, crossing it at several points as it winds between redwood trees and steep banks that drop away abruptly to the water below.

Bareilles uses it to haul equipment to his logging site aboard a trailer as wide as the road, nicking and scarring several redwood trees along the way and damaging the edges of the road at a few places.

Parents and neighbors recently protested at West Side Elementary School on Felta Road when Bareilles resumed hauling logs passed the grade school in May.

Protesters gather outside West Side Elementary School to protest logging activity on Felta Rd in Healdsburg, Calif., on Tuesday, May 17, 2022. (Photo courtesy of Lucy Kotter/Friends of Felta Creek)
Protesters gather outside West Side Elementary School to protest logging activity on Felta Rd in Healdsburg, Calif., on Tuesday, May 17, 2022. (Photo courtesy of Lucy Kotter/Friends of Felta Creek)

The nonprofit Friends of Felta Creek forced Bareilles to revise his initial Fox Meadows timber harvest plan and then sued to stop it once Cal Fire approved it. Members worried about preservation of the private road and public safety, particularly for children and families at pickup and drop-off at West Side Elementary.

“The whole reason we’re up in arms about this is Felta Creek is one of the last places you can find spawning fish.” Friends of Felta Creek’s Lucy Kotter

But they also were deeply distressed by the potential environmental impacts in an area of stunning beauty and ecological value.

“The whole reason we’re up in arms about this is Felta Creek is one of the last places you can find spawning fish,” said Lucy Kotter, a leader in Friends of Felta Creek.

Lucy Kotter, organizer, Friends of Felta Creek, walks with her dog Arrow along Felta Creek near Healdsburg. Kotter has been monitoring damage along Felta Creek Road caused by logging trucks coming off the once forested hill owned by Ken Bareilles, a Eureka attorney and timber owner.  May 23, 2022. (Chad Surmick / The Press Democrat)
Lucy Kotter, organizer, Friends of Felta Creek, walks with her dog Arrow along Felta Creek near Healdsburg. Kotter has been monitoring damage along Felta Creek Road caused by logging trucks coming off the once forested hill owned by Ken Bareilles, a Eureka attorney and timber owner. May 23, 2022. (Chad Surmick / The Press Democrat)

A tributary of Mill Creek, Felta Creek was the only stream in the Russian River watershed where Central California Coast coho were found in 2006 and 2008, according to the Russian River Salmon and Steelhead Monitoring Program.

It has hosted naturally spawned, young coho in all but two of the last 11 years, though the drought left its lower reaches dry by spring this year. Last year, as in 2014, there were no young coho counted, and in 2020, only six were found.

Sediment and suspended soil can threaten the health of fish in the creek in a variety of ways, including suffocating young fish and preventing oxygen from reaching eggs laid in gravel, and making it difficult to find aquatic food, said Don McEnhill, executive director of the nonprofit Russian Riverkeeper organization.

Lucy Kotter, organizer, Friends of Felta Creek, walks along Felta Creek near Healdsburg. Kotter has been monitoring damage along Felta Creek Road caused by logging trucks coming off the once forested hill owned by Ken Bareilles, a Eureka attorney and timber owner.  May 23, 2022. (Chad Surmick / The Press Democrat)
Lucy Kotter, organizer, Friends of Felta Creek, walks along Felta Creek near Healdsburg. Kotter has been monitoring damage along Felta Creek Road caused by logging trucks coming off the once forested hill owned by Ken Bareilles, a Eureka attorney and timber owner. May 23, 2022. (Chad Surmick / The Press Democrat)

“It is harmful to every single life cycle of salmonids,” he said.

The Friends of Felta Creek got the timber plan suspended in 2017. Bareilles submitted a revised version in 2020 but refused Cal Fire’s request that he extend the July 31, 2020 deadline for its review, so it was rejected.

Less than three weeks later, the Walbridge Fire started.

The situation effectively rendered the efforts of neighbors and environmentalists moot. Bareilles is now allowed to harvest trees under a formal “Emergency Notice” filed Oct. 21, 2020.

Cal Fire does not have the discretion to reject or to impose conditions on an emergency notice, 65 of which the agency has issued Sonoma County since the Walbridge Fire, according to Kim Sone, Cal Fire’s Sonoma-Lake-Napa Unit forester.

Operators still must abide by rules and regulations contained in the state’s Forest Practice Rules, including watershed and watercourse protection measures. And Cal Fire and sister agencies still have responsibility to inspect the operations.

Lucy Kotter, organizer, Friends of Felta Creek, with her dog Arrow who is standing in a collapsed portion of the shoulder along Felta Creek Road, near Healdsburg. Kotter has been monitoring damage along Felta Creek Road caused by logging trucks coming off the once forested hill owned by Ken Bareilles, a Eureka attorney and timber owner.  May 23, 2022. (Chad Surmick / The Press Democrat)
Lucy Kotter, organizer, Friends of Felta Creek, with her dog Arrow who is standing in a collapsed portion of the shoulder along Felta Creek Road, near Healdsburg. Kotter has been monitoring damage along Felta Creek Road caused by logging trucks coming off the once forested hill owned by Ken Bareilles, a Eureka attorney and timber owner. May 23, 2022. (Chad Surmick / The Press Democrat)

But the multilayered review and public comment period that precedes regular timber harvest plan approval does not exist for emergency timber operations, given the urgent need to remove excess fuel and log salvageable timber before it becomes unusable.

McEnhill, at the Russian Riverkeeper, says Bareilles’ logging effort is prime evidence of the flaws in that approach.

“I mean, this guy’s racked up so many violations in the last 12 months or whenever he was able to start, and yet the state is telling us they’re powerless to revoke his permit,” McEnhill said. “I mean, what a joke. It just goes back to the reality that Cal Fire is not about protecting forests or watersheds. Everything is tilted toward getting the timber out of there … and the current fire hysteria is not helping.”

A logging truck travels through Felta Creek Road property, May 23, 2022. (Chad Surmick / The Press Democrat)
A logging truck travels through Felta Creek Road property, May 23, 2022. (Chad Surmick / The Press Democrat)

And yet, it was Cal Fire Unit Forester Sone who first discovered last June that Bareilles’ team had spanned Felta Creek with the beginnings of an unauthorized bridge in hopes of hauling logs across it. She organized a joint inspection about a week later involving water quality and fish and wildlife personnel that would play a role in their regulatory actions.

Sone has now documented at least 16 inspections of Bareilles’ operations, issuing five notices of violation in the latter half of last year and another Tuesday following weekend rain, when regulators found erosion control measures missing again and felled trees and other logging debris deposited in creek channels.

The California Department of Fish and Wildlife has issued two violations, both last year. And the regional water quality control board issued a cleanup and abatement order in January, citing past offenses, and a notice of violation in March, in part for failure to produce an interim cleanup plan on time. Bareilles could be subject to fines of $1,000 a day. Most of the notices cite multiple code infringements.

Lucy Kotter, organizer, Friends of Felta Creek, posted bandaide posters on damaged redwood trees along Felta Creek Road near Healdsburg. Kotter has been monitoring damage along Felta Creek Road caused by logging trucks coming off the once forested hill owned by Ken Bareilles, a Eureka attorney and timber owner.  May 23, 2022. (Chad Surmick / The Press Democrat)
Lucy Kotter, organizer, Friends of Felta Creek, posted bandaide posters on damaged redwood trees along Felta Creek Road near Healdsburg. Kotter has been monitoring damage along Felta Creek Road caused by logging trucks coming off the once forested hill owned by Ken Bareilles, a Eureka attorney and timber owner. May 23, 2022. (Chad Surmick / The Press Democrat)

Sone said “additional enforcement action may be pursued,” but said she could not say more.

Bareilles appears unperturbed by that news.

“Big f--king deal,” he said “Everybody that works is still under investigation.”

Bareilles describes himself as “a huge environmentalist,” however, and says regulators will ultimately realize he’s done no real harm to the creek bed. He said he expects to finish logging within weeks and then get the property all cleaned up to sell.

But people like Richard Hay, who regularly walks in the neighborhood from his home on Westside Road, wonders how it’s possible for Bareilles to have gotten this far, given his history and the number of times he appears to have violated the rules on his current job.

He recalled a few months back encountering state Fish and Wildlife personnel rescuing young fish from a section of Felta Creek upstream from where it had gone dry so they could be delivered to the Russian River in hopes of their survival.

Lucy Kotter, organizer, Friends of Felta Creek, walks up Felta Creek Road past sideswiped redwood trees with her dog Arrow along Felta Creek near Healdsburg. Kotter has been monitoring damage along Felta Creek Road caused by logging trucks coming off the once forested hill owned by Ken Bareilles, a Eureka attorney and timber owner.  May 23, 2022. (Chad Surmick / The Press Democrat)
Lucy Kotter, organizer, Friends of Felta Creek, walks up Felta Creek Road past sideswiped redwood trees with her dog Arrow along Felta Creek near Healdsburg. Kotter has been monitoring damage along Felta Creek Road caused by logging trucks coming off the once forested hill owned by Ken Bareilles, a Eureka attorney and timber owner. May 23, 2022. (Chad Surmick / The Press Democrat)

“It makes no sense,” Hay said, reflecting on the effort and investment put into fish and watershed health over time and the apparent inability or refusal to stop Bareilles from furthering harm.

“Why do have all these regulations,” Hay said, “if they’re not going to be enforced?”

You can reach Staff Writer Mary Callahan (she/her) 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. 

UPDATED: Please read and follow our commenting policy:

  • This is a family newspaper, please use a kind and respectful tone.
  • No profanity, hate speech or personal attacks. No off-topic remarks.
  • No disinformation about current events.
  • We will remove any comments — or commenters — that do not follow this commenting policy.
Send a letter to the editor

Our Network

The Press Democrat
Sonoma Index-Tribune
Petaluma Argus Courier
North Bay Business Journal
Sonoma Magazine
Bite Club Eats
La Prensa Sonoma
Sonoma County Gazette