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.
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.
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.
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.
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.