Proposed redwood logging along Gualala River stokes debate over forest’s future
Plans to harvest century-old redwoods along the Gualala River are stirring opposition in the wake of an unsuccessful bid to acquire the commercial timberland for conservation purposes, including the expansion of a public park.
The logging proposal covers more than 500 acres upstream from the town of Gualala and includes extensive operations in the flood plain at the mouth of the Gualala River in northwestern Sonoma County.
In an era of diminished logging along the North Coast, the dispute over Gualala Redwood Timber’s plans reflects the debate about how, if at all, sensitive land in the region is logged and whether such private acreage commercially logged for a century should be set aside for conservation.
Proponents behind the logging proposal - actually two separate timber harvest plans - say it has been fully vetted by environmental regulators and meets safeguards established to protect the river and habitat for salmon, steelhead trout and other plants and wildlife.
But opponents, including environmental activists, say felling the trees, especially in the flood plain, will diminish the beauty and health of the river’s scenic South Fork and adversely affect already impaired fish and wildlife habitat, in addition to threatening river flows by pulling water to control dust on logging roads.
County officials also are raising questions about the impacts of logging on recreation and the adjacent Gualala Point Regional Park, which takes in 195 acres at the mouth of the river.
“We are very concerned about this,” said Chris Poehlmann, who leads a local group called Friends of the Gualala River that has been an active critic of logging and forest-to-vineyard conversion projects in the area. “It will be a lost opportunity if the community doesn’t respond. I hope that it won’t be business as usual and people will look backward and say, ‘We should have done something about that.’ ”
But Henry Alden, longtime manager and representative of the Gualala Redwood Timber property - nearly 30,000 acres of mixed redwood and Douglas fir - said the forest can be cut in an environmentally conscientious manner. He said the proposed harvest would have no long-term impact on the watershed and pointed to a smaller flood plain logging plan completed earlier this year as evidence.
“It is still a large, beautiful second-growth forest when we’re done,” Alden said, adding that “there are lots of people hovering around making sure.”
More than 1,440 people have signed an online petition opposing the plans, which are being revised and are to be released as soon as the end of this week, triggering another round of public comment and review.
Gualala Redwood Timber has been owned since late spring by the Roger Burch family and its company, San Jose-based Pacific States Industries, which outbid a coalition of conservation groups and public agencies that sought to buy the acreage.
The Burch family, based in the South Bay, has forest product interests that include the Redwood Empire sawmills in Philo and Cloverdale, as well as extensive timberlands in Sonoma, Mendocino and Santa Cruz counties.
The proposed Gualala River projects have been in the works since this spring, when Gualala Redwood Inc., the previous landowner, filed timber harvest plans that are now being advanced by the new owners.
Two timber harvest plans
The more contentious of the two timber harvest plans, dubbed “Dogwood,” covers 402 acres divided among nearly two dozen sites spread along eight miles of the Gualala’s South Fork. About 320 acres are in the flood plain, beginning at the boundary of the county park. Clear-cut at the turn of the last century, the area has been thinned a few times since, leaving second-growth redwoods all in the 100-year-old range, Alden said.
Most of the land, about 80 percent, is scheduled for very light “select harvesting” of mostly smaller trees in the range of 20-to-40-inches in diameter, Alden said. By law, 80 percent of the tree canopy cover must be left intact. Seventy acres included in the plan will not be logged at all, he said.
Near the county park, the closest trees to be cut are more than 200 feet from the campground and are screened by other trees, Alden said. He said noise might be audible for a week and there would be no visual impact.
To protect the river and its wildlife, no logging will occur within 30 feet of the streambank, and the 13 largest trees in each acre of flood plain will be left standing, as required under state rules.
The other timber harvest plan - “Apple” - covers 121 acres on steeper property set slightly back from the river, most of it slated to be clear cut. About 17 acres will be selectively logged. There will be no logging on 15 acres, the plan states.