Published: Sunday, April 21, 2013 at 4:50 p.m.

A Mendocino County timber company is promising to improve conservation measures on 332 square miles of redwood forest in return for an 80-year federal and state permit to disturb the habitat of up to 42 endangered and threatened plants and animals as part of its timber harvesting operations.

The Mendocino Redwood Company says the plan will boost delicate habitat in the long run by balancing the needs of the wildlife with the company's need to have long-term stability in state and federal regulations, rather than trying to manage the environment with a patchwork of permits.

“If you think about that large ownership like ours, that's not the most effective way” to manage a forest, said Michael Jani, president and chief forester of the Mendocino Redwood Company.

Evironmentalists, meanwhile, applaud the conservation measures but say the 80-year lifespan of the permit is so long that it would make it hard to challenge the company if the preservation plans don't turn out as intended.

“That is just simply too long a time period,” said Andrew Orahoske, conservation director of the Humboldt County-based Environmental Protection Information Center, ”particularly since many of these species are on the brink of extinction on the Mendocino coast.”

State and federal agencies closed the comment period today on an 800-page environmental impact report on the plan, which has been under development for more than a decade. They could decide whether to accept the company's plans, and issue the “take permits” for threatened species, later this year.

Those permits would not allow the company to deliberately kill the creatures, but would permit it to inflict limited damage to the habitat and population in the course of routine timber operations.

The land is scattered in several large patches west of Highway 101 from the Gualala River north to the Humboldt County line. Most of it has been previously logged, so it is what is known as second-growth forest, though there are patches of pristine old growth forest, untouched by previous logging.

The region is habitat for a variety of familiar threatened creatures, including various salmon species and the northern spotted owl. It is also home to many more lesser-known species that are in decline, including the northern red-legged frog, the Point Arena mountain beaver, the pygmy cypress, and the coast fawn lily. In all, there are 11 known threatened or endangered animals or fish species and 31 plants.

The timber company would ordinarily apply for such permits on a case-by-case basis, in the process of applying for permits to harvest a particular piece of forest. By applying for a blanket take permit for the entire area, more than 213,000 acres, the company will save time and money, and also will be able to develop conservation plans for the region more holistically.

“They want the consistency and knowledge of what's expected from them,” said Brad Valentine, an environmental scientist for the state Department of Fish and Wildlife.

In return for the blanket permit, the company pledges to expand its existing conservation efforts, including preserving the scattered patches of old-growth forest and improving fish-spawning habitat in the adjacent streams and rivers, which have suffered considerably under traditional logging practices since the 1850s.

Orahoske admits that the Mendocino Redwood Company has a far better environmental record than the previous companies that owned the land, but he worries that the permit contains insufficient protections for wildlife. Similar long-term agreements with other timber companies have not worked well, he said, but environmentalists have found it hard to challenge or change the plans based on new evidence.

“I think 10 years is a long enough time for them to have some regulatory assurance,” he said, “but a short enough time... that we have the ability to relook at the permit without having to resort to a lawsuit.”

Even if it gets the take permits, the timber company would still have to apply for timber harvest permits to log individual sections of the forest. Jani said that process would give regulators ongoing oversight of operations on the land, and offer them a mechanism for demanding more information or protecting species not now listed as endangered or threatened.

And a shorter time period would not be economical for the company, he said. The proposed forest and stream restorations are expensive, he said, and require the company to turn its back on many traditional timber techniques, which were more profitable even as they were harsher for the environment.

The 80-year time period is what the company believes is practical to return the forest to a reasonably natural condition while allowing Mendocino Redwood to remain profitable.

He expressed surprise at the environmentalists' resistance to the plan.

“We thought if we made an 80-year plan,” he said, “it would be something people would embrace.”