By Frank Hartzell
The Mendocino Beacon
November 9, 2006

Loggers and environmentalists have more than joined hands on the purchase of 25 square miles of the Big River and Salmon Creek watersheds -- they are one and the same. The Conservation Fund, of Arlington, Va., working closely with locals including environmental activists, closed escrow Wednesday, Nov. 1, on a $48.5 million purchase of 16,000 acres owned by the Campbell-Hawthorne Timber Company.

The Fund, which borrowed $25 million from the State Water Board to make the purchase and got most of the rest of the money from a plethora of conservation groups, won't be selling the land for a park or declaring it off limits to logging.

The Conservation Fund already operates as a logging company in the south county, using revenues produced by the chainsaw to boost the local economy and pay to fix erosion caused by clear-cutting. Net annual logging revenues on the new property were estimated at $3.6 million in an appraisal submitted to the State Water Board.

While the purchase does not create a nature sanctuary or public park it does protect the forest from the monoculture of vineyards and from roads and other problems created by private homes, said Chris Kelly, who has spearheaded the efforts for The Conservation Fund.

The Conservation Fund last year purchased 24,000 acres of Mendocino County forest land in the Gualala area, where logging is under way. The new purchase makes The Conservation Fund one of the most significant logging operations in the county, with 40,000 acres of holdings. Kelly said logs from the Big River property will be milled in Ukiah or Petaluma.

"We will hire local foresters, loggers, equipment operators and the like. We will be opening a local office and be very involved in overseeing the management of the property," Kelly said.

Originally, State Water Board documents said the purchase could cut the amount of logging by 40 percent. Kelly said final figures haven't been decided but that harvest levels would probably decline. He said ways the public could access some of the property will be studied.

Fish and some wildlife populations of Big River -- along with economic values of the land -- have suffered from destructive historic logging. Pampas grass, alders and other brush have seized ground that once sprouted massive Douglas Firs and redwood trees. Logging roads have deteriorated, contributing to the sediment load sliding into Big River. Water Board studies show Big River water quality listed as seriously contaminated by erosion from past logging on the property. The improvement to Big River water quality was a prime reason for the state loan to The Conservation Fund.

The new purchase includes 11,600 acres along Big River, north and east (upstream) of the current state park, which was purchased just three years ago. The Big River purchase runs north to Highway 20 near mile marker 13.0.

Salmon Creek purchase

Also included in the purchase are 4,345 acres of Salmon Creek. Salmon Creek is not listed as crippled by erosion, and the trees are bigger and better quality than on Big River lands. Salmon Creek flows into the ocean under the first bridge south of Albion on Highway 1

"Salmon Creek is one of the best Coho salmon-producing streams, on what was formerly Campbell Hawthorne properties," said Albion forest activist Linda Perkins. "The population is small but a healthy, stable and native population critical to salmon recovery in Mendocino County."

Studies show that Mendocino County's once incomparable logging resource has been among the most compromised in all California by a century of logging. The decline in the earning capacity of local forest lands has also helped hasten the decline of the salmon fishery.

Some activists who challenged past purchases made for environmental protection are supporting the current effort -- that includes logging.

Perkins spearheaded an effort to challenge State Parks in court over the purchase of Big River State Park. Her group was critical of the fact that logging roads, a primary cause of erosion, were left in the hands of the logging company by the state and the Mendocino Land Trust.

Asked for her reaction to the new purchase, Perkins said "How about yahoo!'?"

"We are thrilled to have the new neighbor," she said. She praised the efforts by Kelly and said the Conservation Fund had made a real effort to work with local people and conditions.

Perkins explained that existing plans for clear cutting will be set aside in favor of selecting trees for harvest by the Conservation Fund.

"Careful logging can be OK. I think we have no choice in terms of the economics of this county," Perkins said.

Conservation and logging

A proposed development with a parcel split on Albion Ridge by Midstream Partners alarmed local activists and helped lead to the proposed grading ordinance being considered by county supervisors. Kelly said a prime threat to the county's forest resource comes from the sale of big land parcels to private parties. There are currently 10 such Mendocino Coast parcels for sale through local real estate agents, including those that have had homes for many years. No new divisions of large parcels have been proposed on the coast recently. The land has timber production (TPZ) zoning, which means very low taxes, which would be lost if converted to any other use. Kelly points out there are many parcels where old subdivision maps allow for division without amendments to zoning.

Perkins also sees as real the threat posed by development that would break big parcels into smaller pieces.

The Gualala purchase by The Conservation Fund brought a San Francisco Chronicle story this summer that got national play as the possible beginning of a trend toward sustainable logging by owners thinking of long-term land values, rather than immediate profits.

That news story was headlined, "Conservation and loggers, old enemies, try working together," a statement that plays off popular stereotypes of loggers being against all regulations and environmentalists being against all logging. Neither of those notions has been true locally. When big corporations have engaged in logging that injured the future earning capacity of their own lands, local logging families have been among their most vocal critics. Those same local loggers have practiced more sustainable logging on some of their own lands. Local environmentalists, who pushed for total government protection of forests from corporate bulldozer clear-cut logging, have long been willing to support more sustainable logging practices.

In Mendocino County timber companies owned such huge tracts of land and so many of them that the entire ecology and economy was determined by two or three big corporations, whose names changed over the decades, but between whom the big parcels were passed.

Kelly said many such parcels are too big and too expensive to be purchased for parks. The Conservation Fund wants to keep the forest parcels from being broken up into multiple uses for the benefit of both local ecology and the local economy.

"We have refocused our efforts in California to preserving timber land in the coastal area. We are trying to protect particularly large productive, biologically rich forest lands ... to continue to manage with them in a way that will contribute to the local economy," Kelly said. He said no other local purchases are currently on the board for The Conservation Fund.

Those who have been involved in the Big River purchase process include Perkins, Bill Heil, Tom Wodetzki, Sharon Hansen, Warren DeSchmidt, Larry Miller and Bernie MacDonald.

"A dozen Albion locals organized public meetings to educate the community about this opportunity to purchase 4,000-plus acres of our Salmon Creek watershed as a community asset, and also held several fund-raising events that raised several thousand dollars for this purchase and research," said Wodetzki, who also hopes sustainable logging will take off locally.

Art Harwood of Harwood Forest Products has also been a leader in the sustainable logging efforts and those of The Conservation Fund.

Craig Blencowe and Darcie Mahoney are providing forestry consulting, Kelly said. "We expect to involve others as we build our local management team."

On Friday, Nov. 17 at 11 a.m., the State Water Board will present a symbolic check for $25 million to The Conservation Fund in a grove of redwoods near the state capitol. Other donors include the Coastal Conservancy, which chipped in $7.25 million, the Wildlife Conservation Board, which contributed $7.25 million, while the Conservation Fund spent $9.5 million.

Of the $9.5 million contributed by The Conservation Fund, $5.5 million was borrowed on a line of credit which the group hopes to repay with continued fund- raising over the next year or so, Kelly said.

The acquisition drew the support of the Mendocino Land Trust.

"The acquisition protects the investment we made in 2002 on behalf of the Mendocino community in that it is immediately adjacent to the 7,334 acres of what is now Big River State Park. Protecting the estuary portion of the Big River watershed was really significant," said James Bernard, executive director of the Land Trust.

"We are pleased to see a national conservation organization partner with a local organization, the Redwood Forest Foundation, Inc., to demonstrate that timber production can continue on these lands in a sustainable manner that will reduce sedimentation and consequent impact on the downstream owners [State Parks]."

Bernard said the Land Trust does not undertake sustainable timber management activities. "We do want to work with landowners who wish to pursue sustainable practices on their lands and permanently conserve their properties' working forest values in the Big River watershed and elsewhere in Mendocino County. To that end, the Land Trust will be launching an initiative next year with Proposition 50 funding to reach out to landowners in the Big River and Noyo River watersheds."

Three organizations have now conserved significant portions of the Big River watershed: Save-the-Redwoods League in the headwaters including and around Montgomery Woods; the Land Trust in the estuary; and The Conservation Fund in the middle reaches, Bernard said.