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?”