David Simpson/For the Times-Standard

Posted: 03/11/2011 01:24:13 AM PST

Donna Tam's March 4th Times-Standard article on the Usal Redwood Forest and a decision to delay support for it last week by the State Wildlife Conservation Board (WCB) is accurate as far as it went (with the exception of a couple of details one being that the acreage involved is actually 50,000 not 50.) The article, though, might have looked a little deeper.

First off, I need to make a disclaimer. I am not in any official way a representative of the Redwood Forest Foundation (RFFI), the nonprofit that owns the land in question. I was, though, part of a community forestry team (CFT) in 2007 and 2008 that joined with the Nature Conservancy, Save the Redwoods League and RFFI in an effort to mount a serious bid for ownership of Pacific Lumber Company. Our intention was to manage those lands under conservation easements as a working forest, the profits from which would be reinvested in the community.

One thing missing from Ms. Tam's article is the nature of the opportunity the Usal Forest represents. Community nonprofit ownership of productive lands is a relatively new concept. The closest thing we have to it right now in Humboldt is the Arcata City Forest, laudable for its first-rate forestry and limited in its potential only by the relative smallness of its acreage. Those acres, though, are protected into the future as an undeveloped, green zone around Arcata that will continue to throw off income for the city though ecologically-responsible management of forest resources

The Usal forest, which encompasses a large part of the northwest corner of Mendocino County, offers this promise too, on a larger scale. Under careful management, it will pay great dividends to the local economy and to the citizens of the State of California. It is an example of how a relatively small investment for easements for working forests can achieve, over time, the ecological goals on of a much more costly acquisition. Large landscapes can be brought this way under a restorative management that protects and restores land, waterways and the species that inhabit them indefinitely into the future. At the same time, the surrounding communities and more distant California taxpayers will reap benefits that an unfragmented, ecologically intact landscape and an economy based on it can offer.

Back in 2007, when Sandy Dean, representing Mendocino Redwood Company (MRC) and other California timber interests, first wrote the letter to the WCB, that was cited in Ms. Tam's article, opposing, the use of public funds to buy conservation easements, MRC was itself about to enter into the PL fracas. Eventually, the letter and the subsequent secretive (i.e. “non transparent”) lobbying by MRC in Sacramento against our funding for our easements forced our consortium out of the competition. It must be noted that MRC, like any landowner, has the right to apply for state funds for conservation easements too. Their interest in keeping all options for their ownerships open -- including that of development -- are the limiting factor in their seeking conservation easements.

Though MRC's initiative was ostensibly driven by matters of principle, their letter and subsequent lobbying in Sacramento served the less high-minded goal of eliminating a major competitor. No one on our team, though, stooped to recriminations. We had to recognize that MRC offered the best deal for Humboldt in terms of operating former PL lands at sustainable levels and keeping the mill alive. We became behind-the-scenes advocates for MRC in the closing bankruptcy proceedings and helped to discourage other bidders who would have broken up PL holdings and sold them off to the highest bidders or run up the price and thus the need for heavier harvest.

Sandy Dean and Mike Jani openly expressed appreciation for our help and that of the Humboldt environmental community, especially EPIC. Though there were doubters of MRC among the environmentalists, we had a good start toward a new dispensation in Humboldt, one that promised to put to rest the seemingly irresolvable conflict between timber and environment that racked our county in the Hurwitz era.

Now that they have submitted a second letter, this one directed against the conservation easement for RFFI's Usal Redwood Forest we must remind Mendocino Redwood Company of those heady days of partnering interests that brought their bosses, the Fisher/GAP family, into ownership of one of the true gems of the world's forests. Those lands, along with MRC's large holdings in Mendocino, give them possession of close to 450,000 acres, a significant proportion of all remaining undeveloped redwood timber lands in the world.

MRC and HRC are laudable managers but they should forebear from further lobbying against RFFI's conservation easement. Accepting this modest deal for a remnant of heavily cutover forest seems a matter of basic fairness if nothing else, and it is hard to argue that the people of California could be paid any kind of disservice by establishing this important new model. RFFI seems to have worked hard over a long period and followed all the rules established by the WCB. The organization has been entirely open and above board in negotiations to date. It should have its day.

David Simpson is a co-founder of the Mattole restoration effort and formerly President of the Institute for Sustainable Forestry. He lives in Petrolia.