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New 113-acre preserve on Sonoma-Mendocino line aims to bolster Gualala River recovery

Standing above the Gualala River, his gaze toward the opposite bank and a sharp hairpin turn in the river known as Mill Bend, Dave Shpak recounted more than a century of environmental abuses there as somberly if they were still taking place.

In a way, they are.

Though the last of three industrial-scale lumber mills — two right at the edge of the river and a third, up the hill — ceased operations in 1963, the estuary has only just begun recovering from decades of degradation that altered the river bed, diminished the aquatic habitat and denuded the surrounding embankments of native plants to make room for sawing logs.

But Shpak and the Redwood Coast Land Conservancy, for which he started working this past winter, are now in charge of 113 acres of land along 1.5 miles of river just up from its mouth, a property now known as Mill Bend Preserve. They’re currently in the throes of long-term planning that puts the health of the landscape and the life it supports above all else.

The conservancy’s vision, driven by local supporters who saw a real estate sale sign in 2017 as an invitation to launch a meaningful community project, also includes “light touch” trail development and environmentally sensitive river access for fishing, paddle boats and other recreation.

The challenge, said Shpak, the project manager, is “to thread the needle of public access in ways that are consistent with, and compatible with, the primary conservation objective.”

“This entire property, at one time or another, has been utilized for industrial milling and forestry, beginning in the mid-1800s, all the way through 1963,” Shpak said. “So virtually the entire property has been cleared of vegetation, had extensive industrial development on it — everything from mills to railroads, housing, infrastructure — and what we see today is the result of nature doing her very best to heal those injuries.

“RCLC’s job is to give nature a boost, to help accelerate natural processes that would otherwise take thousands of years, and to do so in ways that reestablish ecological values that are of very high importance to society, including salmonid use of the Gualala River,” he said.

The land at issue includes two combined parcels separated by Highway 1 as it crosses the river from Sonoma County into southwest Mendocino County on the Pacific Coast.

The small conservancy closed escrow on the $1.8 million property at the end of January, finalizing its purchase from Maryland-based Allemall Foundation, which bought the land two years earlier as a bridge owner to give the local land trust time to assemble financing.

The western 54 acres runs from the southernmost edge of the Mendocino County town of Gualala along the coastal bluffs and the western edge of the highway, then reaches across the river to the steep, southern bank below Gualala Point Regional Park in Sonoma County.

It includes the gravel bars exposed by low river flows and what Shpak calls the “willow flats” — dense thickets of willow trees, brambles and weeds that have reclaimed land in the deep elbow of Mill Bend once covered in sprawling wooden structures billowing smoke, railway trestles, slash burners and log piles up to the water’s edge and even in the river in some areas.

Rutted trails in several directions through the willows reveal unauthorized routes used by rogue motorists that are prohibited and which the RCLC is working to discourage.

East of Highway 1 is the 59-acre “upper mill” property that rises above the roadway and the north shore of the river, where patches of crumbling asphalt, concrete pads and other relics of its history still remain. It is overgrown in places, in part with invasive broom and pampas grass, though some areas are open, bare “heat islands.” The parcel abuts that of the community’s prized Gualala Arts Center and is used for overflow parking during large events. About 30 acres of redwoods, though heavily logged, are on the site, as well.

The entire property was once part of 30,000 acres of land owned by now-defunct Gualala Redwood Inc. and the Ollie Edmunds family, which in 2015 put its timber holdings on the market. The land had been in the family since the 1940s.

Amid continued consternation about industrial logging in the watershed and longtime hopes that additional riverfront property might one day be added to Gualala Point Regional Park, a consortium of local, state and federal agencies and nonprofits tried to buy the real estate. Edmunds sold the property instead to Roger Burch, owner of the Redwood Empire sawmills in Cloverdale.

But he held back the two Mill Bend parcels, listing them on the market in 2017. A group of local residents immediately recognized an opportunity, among them, John Walton, now RCLC vice president. He remembers pulling to the side of the road when he saw the sign and telling his wife, “Don’t you think the community needs to have this?”

“I”m sure 20 other people had the same idea when they saw it,“ said Walton, who shared that he has tended to ”charge at windmills“ most of his life.

A quickly convened forum that drew 70 attendees from in and around the town of just more than 2,000 people suggested there were others willing to join the effort to buy the land for the public.

The property, billed as the community’s “front porch,” had development potential and water connections on the upper site in a town with a moratorium on new water hookups. So “there was a feeling that, yeah, we should have it,” said Kathleen Chasey, who became the engine behind the Mill Bend Coalition. Chasey also served as land acquisition director and project manager before Shpak.

After more than a century of logging in the watershed — the removal of old-growth redwoods that helped build San Francisco, twice, as well as much of the North Coast — the community is protective of the river, already listed under the federal Clean Water Act as impaired for excess sediment load and temperature. Once abundant with coho salmon, it remains habitat for threatened steelhead trout and red-legged frog, among others, as well as hunting grounds for bald eagles.

When the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service came up with a $1 million wetlands conservation grant, it seemed the community coalition “might pull it off,” Chasey said. But it took the intervention of the Allemal Foundation, run by a couple whose daughter had a Sea Ranch home, to secure the property for the time it might take to gather the remaining funding, she said.

It came in the form of $845,000 from the California Natural Resources Agency, $150,000 from the Sonoma Land Trust and $50,000 from the Gualala Arts Center, which sits on 11 acres once donated by Edmunds.

The community also raised $600,000 for stewardship, as required by funders, through donations ranging in size from $10 to $50,000, as well as more than $100,000 in in-kind services to facilitate planning and administration.

“This is a little community, and $600,000 dollars is a lot of money,” Chasey said, “and by the way, there was a pandemic.”

But “grass roots-wise, there’s been lots of involvement, and it was not a hard sell to raise the money,” she said.

Shpak and the conservancy now are working through planning for public use and long-term conservation goals in consultation with Sebastopol-based Prunuske Chatham, as well as grant applications that will be needed to fund what are likely to be costly efforts. A virtual meeting on April 11 will give interested parties an opportunity to catch up with planning so far.

Visions for the property include everything from linking segments of the California Coastal Trail to possible development of an environmental center and riverbed restoration that may one day encourage the return of coho salmon. It’s a highly compromised habitat, but federal and state wildlife agencies are interested in working on watershed restoration, RCLC officials said.

The work is starting with simple steps. Installation of a bar gate across the rough dirt road leading out to a gravel point on the bend was among the first moves — an effort to prevent the bonfires, illegal camping and vehicular traffic on the river shoreline.

In the river, remnants of wooden crib, left over from structures built to keep logs from floating out to sea, already function to a limited extent as habitat for aquatic life. But future efforts might include installing large woody debris in the river to break up flows and help provide additional habitat, while side channels also might be dug for juvenile fish, Shpak and Walton said.

Any improvements in the estuary need to consider rising sea levels and increasing inundation in areas subject to tidal influence, Shpak said.

But he’s excited about future opportunities for appropriate access, education and interpretation.

Low impact trails. Picnics areas. Interpretative stations. “That’s the lens that we’re looking at,” Shpak said.

Walton said he recognizes it will take a decade or more “to really get done what we need to get done there,” but at least, “it’s rolling.”

Mill Bend, said Shpak, “is essentially the front door of Mendocino County and the town of Gualala. It really is. It has this amazing geographical position. It has powerful position in the history of the community and its sense of place.“

Acquiring it for the public was “a game changer,” he said, and extending an opportunity to aid its recovery as an “effective ecosystem … an opportunity to experience a piece of land that has this very rich history — a history of Native American occupancy, a whole forestry and mills industry that’s so important to this part of the coast and to rural history, and a place for so many charismatic wildlife species.

“That’s a story that can be told on this piece of property, by people getting out of their cars and being on the land.”

Virtual Public Meeting on the Future of Mill Bend Preserve

April 11, 3-5 p.m.

The Redwood Coast Land Conservancy is seeking input on planning alternatives developed by environmental consultants with Prunuske Chatham Inc., to be made public for the first time during the 2-hour session.

The virtual meeting will be held on Zoom. Register through the Redwood Coast Land Conservancy, rclc.org.

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

Editor’s note: This story has been updated to correct the Sonoma Land Trust’s contribution to the purchase of Mill Bend Preserve.

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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