By Clark Mason, Staff Writer
The Press Democrat
July 27, 1999

A small group of west Sonoma County environmentalists on Monday failed to persuade a Santa Rosa judge that a timber harvest plan along Willow Creek west of Occidental should be stopped to avoid damage to the watershed and its wildlife.

Sonoma County Judge Laurence Sawyer declined to issue an order stopping the 121-acre harvest, agreeing with the timber company that some of their mitigation measures to alleviate erosion actually will benefit the creek in the long run.

Western Watershed Alliance, a group represented by Forestville attorney Kimberly Burr, had asked the judge to issue a preliminary injunction to keep a timber harvest plan by Mendocino Redwood Co. from going forward.

The environmental group said the timber-cutting plan, which was approved in June by the state Department of Forestry, would harm Northern spotted owl habitat, and sparse numbers of coho salmon and steelhead trout that remain in Willow Creek.

But Sawyer sided with the timber company, saying the environmental group failed to show that the Department of Forestry had not considered the cumulative impact of logging to the watershed, or how to keep sedimentation from degrading water quality and increasing flooding.

The parcel in question is part of about 12,000 acres of timberlands in Sonoma County and 220,000 acres in Mendocino County that Mendocino Redwood Co. acquired from Louisiana Pacific Corp.

Mendocino Redwood Co., formed in June 1998, is owned by a partnership made up of members of the Fischer family, who also are founders and significant shareholders in the Gap clothing company.

The timber harvest project is located 3.5 miles west of Occidental and 1.5 miles from the ocean and involves cutting about 750,000 board-feet of mostly second-growth redwood and Douglas fir. Company officials said that translates to about 150 truckloads of timber.

Willow Creek is known for having a severe sedimentation problem caused by logging and grazing that dates back more than a century. Three years ago, the state Parks and Recreation department, which manages the lower creek watershed, commissioned a study to document the sedimentation problem and find ways to restore the salmon and steelhead populations affected by the siltation.

Hydrologists said the biggest damage to the watershed came after World War II when large tracts of forests were clear-cut, often on steep slopes next to streams.

Members of Western Watershed Alliance said the proposed timber harvest plan will re-open old logging roads and skid trails that were already re-vegetated.

Darrell Sukovitzen, a Jenner arborist who is against the logging, said the timber company would have 56 crossings over streams and steep slopes.

"Most have healed over in the past. To re-open them up at this time would be irresponsible,'' he said.

Sukovitzen is also concerned about the effects of a second proposed timber harvest plan along Willow Creek, as well as an ongoing 250-acre timber harvest plan downstream near Pomo Canyon state park.

Judge Sawyer noted that Mendocino Redwood Co. plans to spend $44,000 to improve problems with sedimentation from previous logging operations. Some of the mitigation measures include creation of sediment traps and removal of old culverts, as well as mulching and seeding after the harvest.

Sandy Dean, president of Mendocino Redwood, said Monday the project involves a selective harvest of trees.

"There will be a lot of forest when we're done,'' he said.

He said he is uncertain how soon logging could begin, but it could be before the end of the year. "We're trying to build a backlog of timber harvest plans.

We're not trying to harvest immediately after they're approved,'' he said.

Dean said the company believes logging and environmental concern are not mutually exclusive.

"We started with a purpose -- to show you can manage a timber company with a high standard of environmental stewardship and operate as a successful business,'' he said.

Some past outspoken critics of timber harvest plans sided with Mendocino Redwood's proposal, including Helen Libeu and Jay Holcomb, who said it will occasion much less environmental disturbance than most timber harvest plans.

Copyright 1999 Press Democrat