Opponents of logging plan along Gualala River dream of expanding park

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Provoked by a new round of scrutiny over hard-fought plans to harvest timber in the Gualala River floodplain, a contingent of North Coast residents has launched a petition drive to use the land for expansion of a public park instead.

It’s the stuff of fantasy for the moment, given the property owners’ stated unwillingness to sell to conservationists and their desire to “ensure this area remains in timber production.”

But people like Anchor Bay resident Kathleen Chasey want state forestry officials to know that riverfront acreage involved in the “Dogwood” timber harvest plan would make a welcome addition to adjoining Gualala Point Regional Park, as an alternative to what they deem an environmentally destructive logging scheme.

County park officials are on board, as well, having eyed the swath of river since at least 1955 as ideal land for a major regional or state park.

“If there’s a window of opportunity to get a willing seller — however that willing seller comes about — for all or just a portion of the property, we want to be ready,” said Chasey, 61.

The nascent campaign was sparked largely in response to a discussion of alternative uses for land within Gualala Redwood Timber’s revised, recirculating harvest plan that Chasey and others felt improperly dismissed a conservation easement or public land purchase as a “remote and speculative” possibility.

Not so, said Chasey.

The Dogwood property, along with more than 29,000 acres of adjoining timberlands acquired by Gualala Redwood Timber in 2015, was also bid on by a coalition of conservation groups that put together its own, legitimate multimillion-dollar offer, she said.

In addition, the Mendocino Land Trust and the Redwood Coast Land Conservancy have an interim, confidential conservation buyer in escrow on separate, combined parcels totaling 112 acres at the mouth of the Gualala River.

The smaller properties, known as Mill Bend, were held back by the Ollie Edmunds family and Gualala Redwood Inc. when it sold its timber holdings four years ago to the Roger Burch Family and Pacific States Industries Inc., which owns Redwood Empire Sawmills in Cloverdale and Asti.

The unnamed buyer of Mill Bend is conducting due diligence on the land and the condition of a former mill site at the large hairpin curve downstream from the river’s mouth. If the purchase is completed, he or she will hold the property until the conservation groups can organize funding to buy it, according to Ann Cole, executive director of the Mendocino Land Trust.

Of course, that could be the last of the conservation purchases. Gualala Redwood Timber has every hope of winning permission to renew logging on the river, despite two Superior Court rulings against it so far after four years of filings and revisions of its plan.

Company officials were not available for comment Thursday, but their logging plan has been revised and subjected to four periods of public review. Now in its fifth, it’s been drafted to comply with Forest Practice Rules designed to limit “potentially significant impacts” on wildlife habitat and fisheries, including 30-foot no-cut zones along the water.

But Gualala Redwood Timber has been defeated in court twice by Friends of the Gualala River, an environmental group that fears the company’s extraction of large, century-old redwood trees in flood-prone areas of the watershed will mean running roughshod over sensitive wetland habitat in a river that also hosts protected salmon and steelhead fish.

A Sonoma County Superior Court judge determined the previous iterations of the plan did not adequately address the cumulative environmental impacts of multiple logging plans in the watershed, as well as assessment of alternatives for the land.

In addressing the conservation or public lands alternative, the timber harvest plan states the key objective of providing logs for the Redwood Empire Sawmills would be altogether lost by selling the land for something besides timber production. The plan warns it would also jeopardize Gualala Redwood Timber’s ability to pay down its debts because the land would command a lower sale value and it would take additional time to organize funding for a public or conser- vation purchase.

“The landowner is unwilling at this time to consider selling or donating any part of the (property), and finds the highest and best use is producing timber,” the plan states.

Annapolis biologist Peter Baye, a wetland ecologist and key opponent of the logging plan, said he expects Cal Fire to approve the newly revised iteration, as it has the past two, granting exceptions to rules for harvest in flood-prone areas.

“I don’t know where this goes next,” he said.

Charles Ivor, president of Friends of the Gualala River, said his group was hoping to bring a “higher level of scrutiny” to the matter, including, perhaps, the California Board of Forestry itself, rather than just staff.

He and others also said they hoped to renew oversight by scientists from the National Marine Fisheries Service, who, in the past, have offered decisive input on timber plans near salmon-bearing streams but in recent years have backed away from entering the fray.

“We want the level of scrutiny that has happened before,” Ivor said.

Chasey was a key member of the grassroots Mill Bend Coalition and played a role in bringing the potential benefits of preserving the river estuary to conservation agencies. Many of the same players are now behind the idea of the Gualala River Park after being offended by the suggestion that a public land purchase of the Dogwood parcels was “remote and speculative.”

Locals have long called redwood groves adjoining the county park “the Magical Forest” and used it as an access point for paddling a stretch of river where there’s not land access. They dream now of extending the park 7 miles “bridge-to-bridge” — from the Highway 1 crossing at the edge of the existing, 195-acre Gualala Point Regional Park to Twin Bridges, where Annapolis Road crosses two river forks.

“If you were thinking big picture of protecting the Gualala River, you’d start at the estuary … and go upstream,” Chasey said.

Sonoma County Regional Parks was part of the consortium that tried to buy the Gualala Redwoods Inc. land in 2015, along with the Conservation Fund, the Sonoma Land Trust, the Sonoma County Agricultural Preservation and Open Space District, Save the Redwoods League, the Redwood Coast Land Conservancy and the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation.

With none of the land on the market at present, Deputy Regional Parks Director Melanie Parker said there was little to talk about.

The county has a “longstanding interest in the public value of those properties,” she said. “It’s a longstanding desire of ours, and you know, we definitely hear from the public all the time that it’s a priority and we stand ready and able when the time comes.”

You can reach Staff Writer Mary Callahan at 707-521-5249 or mary.callahan@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @MaryCallahanB.

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