Logging in the Jackson Demonstration Forest still on hold during removal of trees cut last year

After months of delays, logging crews are about ready to reenter Jackson Demonstration State Forest to collect cut timber, but there won’t be any new trees felled in the foreseeable future.|

After months of delays, logging crews are about ready to reenter Jackson Demonstration State Forest to collect cut timber, but there won’t be any new trees felled in the foreseeable future.

Workers will haul out cut logs — about 100 truckloads worth — that were stacked last year while logging was underway in the Chamberlain Creek area north of Highway 20, near the forest’s eastern edge.

But for now at least, the area will be spared the whine of chain saws and the outcry of demonstrators.

The 48,642-acre expanse of forest, which stretches across much of central Mendocino County, has been the site of numerous protests aimed at protecting some of the area’s oldest and largest trees.

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

No one has formally declared a moratorium on logging, as had been requested by activists. But work in four partially cut timber harvest plan areas remains on hold pending ongoing discussions about the future of the more than 70-year-old demonstration forest.

That includes development of an interim management plan that state Sen. Mike McGuire expects to reflect a transition toward a forest mission newly focused on climate mitigation and wildfire resilience, he said.

It also should account for ongoing government-to-government consultations among Cal Fire; the California Natural Resources Agency, of which Cal Fire is part; and sovereign tribal nations, notably the Coyote Valley Band of Pomo Indians, for whom the forest holds sacred value as an ancestral home and ceremonial site.

No trees have been cut since the end of January, when all logging stopped to account for the seasonally observed nesting season of the federally protected northern spotted owl, State Forest Program Manager Kevin Conway said.

The most controversial harvest site near the coastal community of Caspar remains a haven for hikers and bicyclists. All timber operations there have been suspended since June of last year, when protests in the woods made it unsafe for loggers to proceed, Conway said.

Cal Fire also has withdrawn three contentious timber harvest plans filed for areas of the Jackson forest in 2020 and ’21.

The long, unexpected pause means demonstrators who were prepared to go back to the forest in April to stand in the way of loggers have been instead engaged in “a lot of aware presence” among the trees, said Michelle McMillan, a leader in the movement.

“But as for now no logging means no dawn patrol, so we have very well-rested activists who hope they’ll have no reason to be out in the forest,” McMillan said.

Natural Resources Secretary Wade Crowfoot has remained personally involved with collaborative discussions with stakeholders and is intimately familiar with the details, said McGuire, D-Healdsburg.

“I believe he is committed to changing the focus of the demonstration forest and modernizing its mission,” he said.

The Jackson forest was established in 1949 to serve as a living laboratory where sustainable forestry practices could be developed, tested and exhibited following close to a century of clear-cutting through much of the North Coast’s famed redwood groves.

The largest of nine California demonstration forests, which total 72,000 acres, the Jackson forest also offers research opportunities. One project has been collecting data for decades. The globally recognized study in the Caspar Creek watershed involves water quality and stream flow, riparian plant and animal communities, sediment loading and related topics.

Additionally, the forest provides jobs and economic opportunity in a region whose once robust logging, milling and wood products economy has diminished with the supply of available trees.

Recreational activities — including camping, hiking, cycling and horseback riding — are supported but are by law defined as secondary to timber production.

Timber sales generated an average $6.6 million a year between 2011 and 2020, supporting operations throughout the nine demonstration forests.

A little over two years ago, however, residents escaping pandemic-era isolation by flocking to the coastal woods near Caspar began seeing redwoods along the trails marked for harvest, setting off alarm and scrutiny of timber harvest plans around the forest.

State Forest Program Manager Conway and others said the approach to the harvest was measured and based on forest management rules that allow for the strategic removal of trees to maintain overall forest health by lessening competition for sunlight, water and necessary nutrients.

But a coalition of veteran forest defenders joined by younger activists driven by a planet in crisis rose in protest to halt the logging as well as other timber harvests.

Bolstered by global and state initiatives supporting land-based climate change mitigation, they argued that the state-owned forest should be converted to a carbon bank, and its trees left to capture and store atmospheric carbon.

Demonstrators took direct action, taking up residents in platforms built high in the largest trees and blocking roads into disputed harvest sites. The situation near Caspar forced Cal Fire to stop logging mere days into the harvest there, due to public safety concerns, Conway said.

They closed ranks with tribal representatives, including Coyote Valley Band Chairman Michael Hunter, in acknowledging the tribe’s long claim to the land later taken by European settlers.

By executive order issued in June 2019, California Gov. Gavin Newsom established provisions for government-to-government consultations aimed at seeking opportunities for co-management and tribal access to natural lands in recognition of historic displacement of Indigenous people.

Hunter began those consultations earlier this year but declined to comment on their status Wednesday.

Conway, Jackson’s forest program manager, in spring hosted a series of community meeting/tours in the forest featuring different speakers to convey Cal Fire’s perspective on the forest, its mission and its timber harvest practices.

It also offered a scaled-down version of the Caspar 500 timber harvest plan that had generated so much outrage, though so far the critics have not backed down.

Conway said this week Cal Fire is still “trying to take steps to move forward to complete the (four) plans that we already have under contract.”

The redwood and Douglas fir logs being removed over the next few weeks are from a 737-acre timber harvest plan located about 12 miles east of Fort Bragg, about 40% of which had been completed before logging was halted, Conway said earlier this year.

The trees will be limbed and trimmed and taken to mills to be processed as wood products but are being hauled from the forest primarily to reduce wildfire fuels, Cal Fire said.

The state has provided $10 million to the demonstration forest budget this year to offset losses from timber sales.

In the meantime, McGuire, whose North Coast district includes the forest, said he anticipates the release soon of some form of interim management plan to replace an existing model he has described as “antiquated.”

“From the very beginning, I’ve been the one that said I’m not confident that the current demonstration model is demonstrating anything of substance,” he said, “and I think that the Natural Resource Agency has taken a real leadership role over the past many months on a potential refocus of the demonstration forest on climate and wildfire resilience.”

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

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