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Tree Huggers Embrace Eco-Friendly Logging

A nonprofit buying North Coast forestland aims to save vital stands by taking over timber operations. Some say it's going out on a limb.

Source:  Copyright 2006, LA Times
Date:  August 6, 2006
Byline:  Tim Reiterman
Original URL: Status DEAD

From a lonely outlook in the coastal mountains of Mendocino County, Chris Kelly takes stock of the dark green ridges of redwood and fir stacked against a light-blue skyline. It's there that he plans to log roughly two dozen square miles of forestland in the coming months and years.

Kelly works for the new owner of this stretch of working forest in the Garcia River watershed, a haven for endangered Coho salmon and threatened northern spotted owls. But his employer is not one of the timber titans that have pulled lumber from California's Redwood Empire for more than a century.

He manages the land for the Conservation Fund, a 21-year-old Arlington, Va.-based organization that strives to balance natural resource protection with economic goals. And timber sales here will be used to pay for forest and watershed restoration.

"People will say, 'A conservation group doing logging?' " said Kelly, who manages its California operations. "This is all new to me. I am learning as I go."

The group says it is the first nonprofit to own and run a major timber operation in the state. And the second- and third-growth redwood forests it has chosen are in a region where intensive logging has left a legacy of environmental problems and relatively young trees.

More than 95% of the ancient redwoods along the North Coast have been felled, according to the Save-the-Redwoods League in San Francisco. The heaviest logging came during the rebuilding of San Francisco after the 1906 earthquake and during the post-World War II housing boom, when companies such as Georgia-Pacific, Louisiana-Pacific and Masonite operated here.

"There now is much less ancient redwood forest in Mendocino County than in any other part of the range," said Ruskin Hartley, conservation director of Save-the-Redwoods League. "You have an opportunity to do restoration on those lands."

The Conservation Fund is banking on transforming the sustainable production and sale of timber that has grown back on previously logged land into dollars that can be used to permanently shield the property from development while improving wildlife habitat and providing jobs.

After buying 24,000 acres along the Garcia for $18 million in 2004, the Conservation Fund is purchasing an additional 16,000 acres in two nearby watersheds for $48.5 million — mostly with state financing. And the group hopes to buy 165,000 acres more, which would make it one of the biggest timber concerns on the North Coast.

Private forest ownership here is concentrated, with hundreds of thousands of acres held by half a dozen companies and families. But the industry is struggling, and with land values rising, there is increasing pressure to sell off the least productive parcels — a trend that forestry officials say results in thousands of acres being developed statewide each year.

"We're not talking about conversions of forests to subdivisions," said Bill Stewart, assistant deputy director of the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection. "We are talking about very low density…. But it does alter the forest ecosystem. Lots of animals do not like dogs, cats, horses and cars coming in and out all the time."

Although old-growth timber has all but vanished, the land still provides valuable habitat for wildlife.

However, today's financially stretched government agencies often cannot afford to make large-scale acquisitions to create parkland, which is where the Conservation Fund's idea for carefully planned timber operations comes in.

"I think this is the future of conservation," Kelly said. "I am enthralled with the idea of protecting entire watersheds … but I don't think it is practical to do it by turning them into parks."

Two years ago, the organization bought the Garcia lands from Coastal Forestlands Ltd. for $18 million in partnership with the state Coastal Conservancy, the Wildlife Conservation Board and the nonprofit Nature Conservancy.

Now the Conservation Fund has designated 35% of the property as forest reserve. On the rest, it plans to continue commercial timber production — although the project participants acknowledge that could be a tough sell to people who find logging inconsistent with conservation.

"We can get foresters to say this would promote sustainable forestry, but it is hard to get society to accept this notion," said Louis Blumberg, the Nature Conservancy's state forest policy director.

In the shade of redwood groves, other challenges become apparent. The land has been logged repeatedly, and most trees are spindly offspring less than 2 feet in diameter, not the kind of timber that brings top dollar.

Kelly and his consultants show visitors a cluster that sprouted from the stump of a behemoth tree felled decades ago and now needs thinning to let the remaining trees thrive.

The key, said forester Craig Blencowe, is "cut less than you grow and leave good trees."

The problem is that in the short run, the strategy might not produce enough timber to cover annual operating costs of at least $200,000 for road improvements, stream restoration and forest management.

"Economically, it is a question mark," Blencowe said.

The nonprofit faces other issues that have caused timber companies to clash with government regulators and environmentalists.

When Kelly recently submitted a plan to the state for logging a few hundred acres, local environmentalists who had been supportive of the purchase issued a stinging critique and questioned the proposed use of herbicides to kill tan oaks that have taken over in some previously logged areas.

The harvesting proposal was withdrawn for revisions. And Kelly said herbicides will not be used.

"It's unfortunate the very first project called for use of herbicides," said Greg Giusti, the University of California's forest advisor here. "People are looking for them to develop new ways to manage these landscapes."

But forest activists say they applaud the Conservation Fund's responsiveness and its decision to run a working forest rather than a park — partly because the region needs the jobs.

"Our thinking has changed," said Linda Perkins, a onetime Earth First! protester who helped form a local foundation that also plans to buy and run working forests. "We tried direct action and litigation, and nothing worked. We kept losing forests."

Peter Dobbins of Friends of the Garcia said he believes that the new owners are committed to protecting the river. "The best you can hope for is someone with goodwill and good luck," he said.

The Conservation Fund hopes to close a $48.5-million deal with Hawthorne Timber Co. by Sept. 30 to acquire 11,600 acres in the Big River watershed and 4,345 acres in the Salmon Creek watershed.

The state water board recently approved a $25-million loan for the project. To repay the loan and cover management costs, logging will need to yield more than $1.8 million a year, which project officials say is feasible because the land has plenty of merchantable timber.

The Conservation Fund wants the property because it provides habitat for endangered species and is near the coastal town of Albion, 20 miles north of here, making it vulnerable to development.

However, industry experts warn that managing a working forest will not be an easy matter.

"It is wait-and-see whether they understand what they are getting into," said Steve Brink, vice president of the California Forestry Assn. "It is an arduous journey — sustained yield plans, timber harvest plans, water boards, Fish and Game, threatened and endangered species, cultural resources, global markets."

During a recent tour of the Hawthorne properties by four-wheel-drive vehicle, Kelly got a taste of what is to come.

He spotted tiny Coho in Salmon Creek where Hawthorne strategically placed big logs to provide shelter. He inspected a culvert that the company must replace with a bridge to allow spawning fish to pass.

And he walked through a magnificent grove of redwoods that could be worth thousands of dollars each but are off-limits to logging because spotted owls live nearby.

"Spotted owls are the No. 1 constraint on the land because of the number of owls," said Stephen Levesque, area manager for Campbell Timberland Management, which runs the forest for Hawthorne.

"The owls," Kelly said, "are why we want the property."

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