Cal Fire agrees to logging of redwoods on Lower Gualala River

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Cal Fire has granted final approval to a contentious timber harvest plan that includes logging century-old redwood trees along the lower Gualala River, though environmental advocates who object may challenge it.

The 330-acre “Dogwood” harvest plan had been subjected to a rare three rounds of public review and comment before being given a green light Friday by the state fire and forestry agency, which pronounced the final version in full conformance with state rules.

Forester Henry Alden, a spokesman for Gualala Redwood Timber Inc., which acquired the land last year, said logging would begin this summer — and soon — barring outside interference.

But environmental groups, including Forest Unlimited and Friends of the Gualala River, have said they were willing to take the case to court if Cal Fire failed to block the plan.

Despite assurances from state regulators who have inspected the property, opponents contend the plan violates rules meant to protect sensitive wetland habitats and floodplains from disturbance — a point Alden strongly disputes. Critics additionally say the extent of planned tree removal along miles of lower watershed could have dangerous cumulative effects on water quality and wildlife habitat. They also oppose provisions for pumping water from the river for suppressing dust along skid roads during logging.

Friends of the Gualala River president Chris Poehlmann said Monday it was too soon after the release of final documents to say with certainty whether legal action would be pursued. Both the nonprofit he leads and Forestville-based Forest Unlimited have been raising funds for a potential suit.

“I think the community kind of senses this as a line in the sand for what’s going to go on in the future, as far as this watershed,” Poehlmann said.

But it’s clear regulators disagree, Alden said, adding that opponents’ rhetoric is misleading and inaccurate.

“I don’t mean a difference of opinion,” he said, “but not right.”

The land at issue is located in the northwest corner of Sonoma County at the Mendocino county line on the mouth of the Gualala River. The harvest plan involves selective cutting at about 18 sites spread out along eight miles of the lower river, beginning just east of Gualala Point Regional Park, where second-growth redwoods are among those to be thinned, leaving the 13 largest trees on each acre of land intact, Alden said.

The property was part of nearly 30,000 acres of mixed redwood and Douglas fir timberland acquired last year by Healdsburg resident Roger Burch and his family trust, which outbid a coalition of conservation groups that had hoped to log the land sustainably while using a stretch of riverfront to extend the park.

The Burches also own the Redwood Empire sawmills in Cloverdale and Philo — and their parent company, San Jose-based Pacific State Industries — and have used logs from the property for more than 30 years to keep their mills and a nearby manufacturing facility running, Alden said.

He said the company’s health, and more than 200 jobs related to logging and the mill operation, depend on the flow of logs that could be held up if opponents file suit.

“There’s nothing different going on now,” Alden said. “It’s always been a mixture of hillside and flood plains, and clear-cuts and selections. ... We and the agencies feel this is an entirely appropriate level of harvest and type of harvest.”

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

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