Timber family buys 30,000 acres of forest near Gualala

The Roger Burch family, owner of Redwood Empire and its parent corporation, Pacific States Industries Inc., is expected to close escrow on the 30,000-acre Gualala Redwoods Inc. property in June.|

A swath of coveted timberland near the town of Gualala is being sold to a Northern California family whose existing forest product interests include the Redwood Empire sawmills in Philo and Cloverdale, where logs from the site have been processed for some 30 years.

The Roger Burch family, owner of Redwood Empire and its parent corporation, Pacific States Industries Inc. in San Jose, is expected to close escrow on the property in June, taking possession of nearly 30,000 acres of mixed redwood and Douglas fir at the mouth of the Gualala River currently owned by Gualala Redwoods Inc.

Burch, who has long had timber holdings in Sonoma and Mendocino counties as well as the Bay Area, said he intends to continue what he called GRI’s intelligent management of the site.

“We think that property has been managed as well as any property in California - better than any property that we’re aware of elsewhere - and it’s our intention to practice the same forestry that’s been practiced there,” he said.

Reaction to the sale has been mixed, however, with some expressing disappointment the land will remain in the hands of a commercial timber company rather than conservation interests that made an unsuccessful bid for the property.

Chris Poehlmann, president of Friends of the Gualala River, a local nonprofit, said the watershed’s recovery from decades of logging depends on what he called “a lighter hand of somebody who has those kinds of principles and methods and techniques and attitudes toward the forest versus a commercial timber company.”

But many in the environmental community said the fact the buyer is a family-owned company with a local presence is a good omen, especially given the recent rise of timber investment funds and the high-yield pressures that could come into play.

“If you log all your trees you have an empty mill,” said Chris Kelly, California program director for The Conservation Fund, which led a consortium of conservation agencies that also bid on the property. “If you have an empty mill, you can’t sell to the lumber yard of Orchard Supply. So I think there’s an argument to be made that this is a healthy sign of investment in sustainable timber management.

“You’re not just trying to get the maximum out of the forest for the remote investor, which is what has happened across the country,” he said.

The sale announcement nonetheless comes as a disappointment to Kelly and others in a consortium of local, state and national land preservation agencies that made a bid on the property. The group had hoped to extend protected status to a large expanse of coastal forest that already includes more than 57,000 acres of forest abutting the GRI site and sustainably logged by The Conservation Fund.

Leaders in the conservation effort said they look forward to exploring potential alternatives for smaller scale conservation options with the new owners.

Kelly noted that his agency already has a good relationship with Redwood Empire, which buys logs felled on working forests the fund operates on the North Coast. The Burches’ apparent effort to secure a supply of logs for their mill when so many elsewhere on the North Coast have shut down strengthens the infrastructure for everyone, said Sonoma Land Trust Acquisitions Director Amy Chesnut.

“We support keeping forest lands working, and this is a good way to do that locally,” Chesnut said.

Redwood Empire, founded by Burch in 1971, is a national distributor of lumber and wood products, with a major distribution yard in Morgan Hill and offices in Asti and Southern California, in addition to the two sawmills.

Burch said the new property would be held by the Burch Family Revocable Trust, as are the family’s other timber holdings. The company manages more than 45,000 acres of timberland already in Northern California, including land in San Mateo, Sonoma, Mendocino and Santa Cruz counties.

In Santa Cruz County, some of its operations in sensitive riparian zones caused significant controversy in the late 1990s. Santa Cruz County now has very stringent timber harvest rules, but neither Jodi Frediani, a timber activist in the ’90s, nor Matt Johnston, the county’s environmental coordinator, were aware of any red flags raised recently by company operations.

North Coast regulators and environmental interests similarly reported no particular criticisms, and conservationists mostly appeared hopeful that the new Gualala timberland owners would be good stewards.

“We’re certainly interested to see if there’s any way we can work with them in a conservation sense,” said Linda Bell, executive director of the Redwood Coast Land Conservancy in Gualala.

GRI, founded in 1948 by three men - a group that included J. Ollie Edmunds Sr., whose son, J. Ollie Edmunds Jr., is company president - has been a family-run operation for most of its 67 years.

The timberlands straddle the Gualala River and are divided down the middle by the Sonoma-Mendocino county line. They include 20 miles of river frontage and a significant stand of large redwood trees along a stretch of river eyed by regional park planners as far back as 1955.

The sale announcement it released this week is the first public disclosure from a secretive bidding process that began last fall and culminated in mid-February with the submission of purchase offers - protected by confidentiality agreements.

Neither Burch nor conservation interests would disclose their respective bids for the property. Broker Dave Walters said only that multiple offers were received.

But whatever the price, Kelly said, the consortium would have been disadvantaged by the time it takes to fund-raise and complete the due diligence necessary for multiple entities to approve and contribute toward the sale.

GRI has decided to retain ownership of “select higher and better use parcels,” it said in a statement, including a 58-acre bluff-top parcel above the mouth of the Gualala River zoned for mixed-use development, a 24-acre parcel across the river called Mill Bend, and a small, undeveloped commercial lot in the town of Gualala.

The sale announcement referenced plans by GRI to “continue to evaluate strategic alternatives for these parcels, including sale, development and conservation strategies.”

The Gualala River has been home to declining populations of threatened coho salmon and steelhead trout, but is listed as “impaired” under the federal Clean Water Act because of high temperatures and excessive sediment levels caused primarily by timber harvest practices over the last century and a half, according to the Environmental Protection Agency.

Kathleen Morgan, executive director of the Gualala River Watershed Council, said GRI has been a good partner in efforts to restore the watershed, upgrading more than half of the logging roads at substantial cost.

GRI Forest Manager Henry Alden said 191 miles of roads had been repaired. It costs about $24,000 a mile, with grants covering up to half and GRI matching the rest, Morgan said.

Morgan said she’s been introduced to the Burch family and is eager to work with people who already know the property and the watershed.

“We’re hoping to continue the relationship that we’ve had with Gualala Redwoods with them in the future,” Morgan said.

You can reach Staff Writer Mary Callahan at 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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