By Frank Hartzell
The Mendocino Beacon
Thursday, April 14, 2005

The incongruous image of big logging trucks rolling through State Parks new Big River Unit won’t be seen this summer, despite a court victory by the logging company over local environmental groups.

We don’t have anything in the imminent future planned, for any of the roads on that property. That is not to say we won’t have a need to use one or another of the roads that are out there, including the one that we used last year, said Mike Jani, chief forester for the Mendocino Redwood Company. He said the company would use some roads this year as part of required monitoring of land where a timber harvest was conducted. A Mendocino County judge recently upheld the logging company’s position that they have rights to all the roads on the property. The company also claims rights to maintain those roads. That lawsuit pitted local environmentalists against State Parks. The ruling is being appealed, with a hearing on the appeal anticipated this month.

There was no provision to purchase a spider web of logging truck easements when the property was purchased by the Mendocino Land Trust in 2002, for $25.6 million using state, federal and private money.

The logging road use, and repair of the roads by MRC without California Environmental Quality Act review, shocked some locals who had worked toward the property acquisition.

Linda Perkins, one of those who filed the lawsuit, said Mendocino Land Trust and/or State Parks and the other government agencies involved should have told the public before the sale was completed that logging trucks would be using the roads. A confrontation resulted when local residents discovered the big lumber trucks on the property and then found the Mendocino Redwood trucks were actually not trespassing.

Even State Parks Senior Ecologist Renee Pasquinelli, whose job it is to find ways to help stop erosion and return the park to nature, was surprised to find out she would have to plan for big lumber trucks and a logging company maintaining roads in the nature preserve.

I didn’t know about the [road agreements] at the time of the purchase, she said.

The lawsuit came after a logging truck tipped over in the park in 2003, spilling about 20 gallons of diesel fuel, the suit states. The Albion River Watershed Protection Association and two related groups sued State Parks and MRC last year. They claimed that having big logging trucks traveling through the new state property violated the state’s promise to protect the land.

In fact, the states key goal on the property is to slow erosion that is contributing sediment to the muddy Big River this spring. Logging roads are considered an erosion problem in both the Big River and Albion River watersheds. Retiring roads is part of the management of the Big River unit, according to the draft interim management plan.

Local state parks officials were not involved in the negotiations for the land, which was handled in Sacramento.

We had a choice to take the property with the road agreement or not take the property, said Roy Stearns, deputy director for communications for the California Department of Parks and Recreation.

We chose to take the property because we did not feel the 1973 agreement had any real impact to our use of the property.

For example, most timber harvests occur once every five to 10 years; thus, although the road use during that time may be intense, it is only over a short period of time and occurs infrequently. All other travel over the road was not deemed to be a problem, Stearns wrote, in response to questions emailed by the Advocate-News.

This differs, however, with the stated management purpose of retiring roads where possible to help with erosion.

The Mendocino Land Trust first discovered the reciprocal road use agreement as one of 33 exceptions to title late in the process of acquiring the 7,334-acre Big River property from Campbell-Hawthorne, according to a statement issued by the MLT.

At the time, to resolve the reciprocal road use agreement issue would have been time-consuming and would have endangered the successful consummation of the Big River property acquisition, said James Bernard, current Land Trust executive director. My understanding is that everyone wanted to close the deal with Campbell-Hawthorne and get Big River into public ownership without further delay or consequence.

As a practical matter, the reciprocal road use agreement by MRC with regard to Big River is concentrated on a few roads within the 510 acres of the Big River Unit that are south of the Comptche-Ukiah Road around Matheson Peak (where MRC owns adjacent property to the south and east), according to the Land Trust. Approximately 400 of these 510 acres are located in the Albion River watershed.

MRC was dismissed from the lawsuit early on, which remained as three local environmental groups versus State Parks. The company reentered as an interested party and won the February judgment.

Jani said the company does not need all the roads on the property.

We have offered many times to sit down and get this situation resolved, there are roads in the park property, proper, we never need to use, Jani said. He said the negotiations should be done in concert with State Parks.

State Parks officials say the matter isn’t likely to be settled until the lawsuit is resolved. Jani said he is ready to meet anytime with State Parks.

The road share agreements were originally between Georgia Pacific and Louisiana Pacific, recorded in the early 1970s.

The two timber giants transferred their property to other companies, including the LP lands to the Mendocino Redwood Company, which used the roads to service an existing timber harvest plan on a neighboring parcel last summer.

The suit challenged the validity of the transfer of reciprocal road agreements. But the judge found those rights to be balanced and in force.

Perkins said MRC has been disingenuous in claiming the unlimited right to use the roads on one hand, but then claiming the roads are not property on the other and thus avoiding timber harvest rules.

Jani said forest practice rules are that a company is not required to report on roads they do not control. He said this law is because a user who does not own property does not have the prerogative to make certain changes to a road, such as installing the type of drainage system favored by logging companies, called water bar drainage.

He said the company did meet with State Parks prior to the lawsuit and offered to provide written descriptions of what MRC planned to do in regards to the road.

They asked us to address what our intentions were, we had no problem with that. They know they need to do work on their roads and we can help with that as part of a timber harvest plan, Jani said.