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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.

State forestry officials recommended approval of the plans earlier this year after a review by regulators responsible for safeguarding wildlife, water quality and archaeological resources.

But opponents, including experts in plant ecology and hydrology, say environmental analysis used to support the plans relies on old studies of the watershed, and outdated surveys of rare plants and animals. They say the proposal fails to comply with state logging rules designed to protect sensitive riparian zones and is bound to disrupt critical habitat and contribute to additional erosion in the watershed.

The Gualala River is home to dwindling runs of coho salmon and steelhead trout, and 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 past century and a half, according to the Environmental Protection Agency.

Critics also are outraged by plans to pump thousands of gallons of water a day from the drought-stressed river to use for dust-control on logging roads. The plan would permit timber operators to draft as much as 25,000 gallons daily from the river, though Alden said only a fraction of that would likely be needed and would have no significant impact on river flows.

That assertion, however, doesn’t sway opponents, and their concerns, along with the property owner’s failure to notify some neighbors of the plans — including Sonoma County’s Regional Parks department — led state forestry officials to seek additional information and another round of public comments.

Alden said he expected the amended plans to be submitted to Cal Fire this week or next week, triggering 30 days of public review.

Even if no significant deficiencies are identified, public comments and responses would need to be reviewed in-depth, so it would be several months before the plans could be approved, if they are, said Deputy Chief Leslie Markham, from Cal Fire’s Forest Practice division.

Alden said the logging would take three to six months over one or two years, likely beginning next summer.

The plan’s rocky public reception has been colored, in part, by its release so soon after an attempt to acquire the property for conservation purposes fell short.

The coalition of interests that bid on the property included The Conservation Fund and the Sonoma Land Trust, along with the Sonoma County Agricultural Preservation and Open Space District, Sonoma County Regional Parks and others. Their intention was to conduct limited, managed logging in heavily timbered areas while carving out part of the riverfront property for addition to the county park.

The announced sale to the Burch family in April made it clear, given their need to supply logs to their mills, that the land would be logged at a commercial pace. But even some conservation leaders voiced relief that the property went to someone with local connections, given the rise of timber investment funds and the high-yield pressures that come into play in such situations.

Now, however, some environmental activists say the new owners’ move to log along the river suggests a heavier management hand than they had anticipated and appears to quash persistent hopes that the park may one day be expanded into that stretch of the riverfront.

Jeanne Jackson, of Anchor Bay, who, with her husband, led the petition campaign, called it ironic that the new owners chose to log “the most controversial parcel” as “their first hello to the community.”

The county has eyed the adjoining land for expansion of the of the Gualala Point park since the 1950s.

Regional Parks Director Caryl Hart said the county still hopes to expand the park, but in the meantime county officials have significant concerns about the impact of logging on park visitors, including noise issues and road safety, as well as environmental impacts like wetland destruction, increased sediment and rising water temperature.

Complaints about the proposed logging reached state Sen. Mike McGuire, D-Healdsburg, who convened a meeting of community groups and government representatives earlier this month to ensure concerns about the harvest plans were heard.

“Any time there is a timber harvest plan that allows operations within a flood plain there should be enhanced focus on potential impacts — in particular on water quality and on potential impacts for salmon habitat,” McGuire said.

He said he plans to meet with the timberland owners, as well.

Alden, a former GRI vice president who continues to manage the forest for Burch’s company, rejected any suggestion that analysis of the plans was flawed and said state officials have visited the Gualala River flood plain repeatedly as part of the groundwork for Cal Fire’s new flood plain regulations.

He also noted that the former owners, Gualala Redwood Inc., completed a 112-acre timber harvest last spring, part of which was in the flood plain. The impact, visually and otherwise from that project, has been insignificant, he said.

Logged area withstood storm

Kathleen Morgan, executive director of the Gualala River Watershed Council, for which Alden is vice chairman, said the logged area withstood a huge storm last winter that raised river flows to their highest level in more than a decade, and was considered a successful pilot for the new rules to protect salmon and steelhead habitat.

When the council had its annual picnic across from the logged area, “nobody noticed,” Morgan said.

“If you’re canoeing down the river, you’re not going to notice a change in the riparian buffer along the river,” she said.

“Most of our comings and goings,” Alden said, “are not as dramatic as people imagine.”

But Poehlmann said the harvest plan at issue includes “the largest remaining stand of mature riparian forest” on the river, growing in an area that was decimated by streamside logging in the late 19th century. “Now we’re going to set this whole area back generations with this very injurious timber harvest plan,” he said.

“I think what’s happening — what we’d like to do with the rivers — is to take a new look about how much can you put pressure on a river like the Gualala River, with gravel mining and logging,” said Jackson, the Anchor Bay resident. “When do you say, ‘Enough is enough?’... Maybe the old paradigm doesn’t work anymore.”

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

Editor’s Note: An earlier version of this story incorrectly described the Cal Fire review process following recirculation of the timber harvest plans.

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