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Opponents likely headed to court to block newly approved timber operation between Guerneville and Monte Rio

Approval of 224-acre logging plan near lower Russian River raises likelihood of legal action.|

Cal Fire has approved plans for selective logging of redwood and Douglas fir trees on 224 acres above the lower Russian River between Guerneville and Monte Rio, raising the prospect of legal action by opponents who hope they still might prevent the Silver Estates harvest from going forward.

The state agency granted approval late last week after months of public scrutiny, plan revisions and state delays that critics say reflect the proposal’s fundamentally flawed nature.

But in a Nov. 17 letter, Eric Huff, staff chief of Cal Fire’s Forest Practice Program, said the final version — some 500 pages of reports, descriptions, maps and other information — conforms with state Forest Practice Rules. The decision authorizes landowner Roger Burch and his family to carry out its provisions any time over the next five years.

Map of the general vicinity of the proposed Silver Estates timber harvest project in western Sonoma County. (Guerneville Forest Coalition)
Map of the general vicinity of the proposed Silver Estates timber harvest project in western Sonoma County. (Guerneville Forest Coalition)

What happens next appears to depend in large part on whether Burch and his representatives decide to begin operations this winter, within the restrictions permitted for the traditional wet weather season.

Nick Kent, resource manager for Burch-owned Redwood Empire Sawmills, was not available for comment Monday but previously suggested there would be little activity on the property this season because “we can’t really do anything on it this winter anyway.”

An attorney working on behalf of the grassroots Guerneville Forest Coalition and its nonprofit sponsor, Forest Unlimited, is trying to determine when the operational start might be before deciding whether to seek a temporary restraining order.

Critics argue the plan to cut timber on Neeley Hill and areas around it threatens several endangered and threatened species and risks undermining steep, unstable hillsides, which could trigger landslides, damage roads and compromise water quality, among other problems.

They cite the loss of carbon-storing trees, damage to views from Highway 116, a state-designated Scenic Highway, and insufficient protection of the Clar Tree, a roughly 2,000-year-old, 365-foot-tall redwood within the boundaries of the harvest plan area.

“I’ve seen a lot of timber harvest plans over the years, and this one was a mess,” said Rick Coates, executive director of Forest Unlimited. “It’s a travesty of errors.”

Huff recently acknowledged the important role the public plays in review of timber harvest plans, including ensuring accountability for “issues maybe we didn’t see initially.”

The Silver Estates plan was recirculated for resource agency review and public comment last winter after an initial round a year earlier. The decision was delayed 24 times, though Huff said it was nowhere near the longest or most complicated process he had seen in decades at Cal Fire.

“I think one of the best parts of the process is that it’s iterative,” Huff said. “It can take a long time to get it right.”

He said Monday he had confidence in the biologists and geologists who reviewed the plan, though concerns about an undersized culvert under Neeley Road long in need of replacement by the county remain unaddressed. That, he said, is an issue for the county to resolve.

The plan itself meets state requirements or it would not have been approved, Huff said.

The Sonoma County Agricultural Preservation and Open Space District, meanwhile, is working with Burch and his representatives to set up a site visit on the property to determine whether it might be an appropriate property for conservation.

Zoned rural residential, it could be developed into six residential parcels or continue in use for timber production, though Kent, with Redwood Empire Sawmills, said Burch is casually looking for a buyer.

Jen Kuzmar, acquisitions manager for the county’s Open Space District, said staff members are reviewing the timber harvest plan to evaluate its impact on the land, its conservation values and the like. Among the considerations are whether the Sonoma County Water Agency might appropriately hold title to the land, as it already leases areas around the Clar Tree for disposal of highly treated waste water generated by the Russian River Sanitation District serving Guerneville and Rio Nido.

If deemed appropriate to reduce the risk of disruption to the property, the district could negotiate a fast turnaround purchase, Kuzmar said. If the logging is not especially aggressive, it might be acceptable to take more time before deciding.

Removal of some of the timber would also lower its production value and price, she said.

You can reach Staff Writer Mary Callahan 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. 

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