By George Lauer
The Press Democrat
August 9, 2001

A scenic swath of private forest land off Coleman Valley Road near Occidental is being offered for public use through a unique permit process set up by its owner, a logging company.

Ridge lines in the 5,000-acre Willow Creek property offer sweeping views over Coleman Valley Road to Tomales Point in the west. And to the north, the Russian River slithers around Duncans Mills and heads down the homestretch toward Jenner and the sea.

The hillsides and low spots along Willow Creek and Freezeout Creek offer shady redwood groves, dense stands of oak, madrone and bay, secluded meadows and stretches of riparian habitat.

As a recreational resource, Willow Creek's potential is huge. In size and natural appeal, it is on a par with Annadel State Park, one of the most popular hiking, biking and horse riding spots north of San Francisco.

"We're reviewing a lot of opportunities for partnerships that might lead to more public access on our lands," said Nancy Budge, director of stewardship for Mendocino Redwood Co.

"We've been doing the permit program at a low level at Willow Creek for a while now and it's been pretty successful, so we decided to broaden the scope.

"This seems like a great way for us to get our foot into the public access part of our stewardship program," she said.

Willow Creek's western boundaries come close to Sonoma Coast State Beach near Pomo Camp, and there is a possibility the state parks department and Mendocino Redwood may some day come to an agreement that would connect the two properties.

"Willow Creek is a beautiful piece of property and State Parks is indeed interested in hooking it up with Sonoma Coast State Beach," said Renee Pasquinelli, senior state parks ecologist in the Mendocino office.

"There have been discussions along those lines and we hope more will occur in the future," she said.

The catalyst that brought the parks department and the logging company together and then got the company to offer public access on its own was Caryl Hart, an open-space advocate who lives nearby and likes to hike and ride her horse in Willow Creek.

"This is just too spectacular a piece of property to keep private," Hart said. "The fact that it's a logging company makes some people shy away and wring their hands, but this company is responsible in its practices, and the logging it is doing here is only in a small part of the property."

Hart, a member of the state Parks Commission and a former member of the Sonoma County Open Space District's citizen advisory committee, said she hopes the property will eventually come under public jurisdiction, either as a state park or through some other government body.

Getting a permit

Here's how the public access program works:

The public is welcome to use the property on foot, bicycle or horseback in daylight hours in spring and summer. The program is not in effect during the rainy season.

The public is invited to apply for a permit -- you give name, address, vehicle identification and how you plan to use the property. You sign a form releasing Mendocino Redwood of liability and in return you get a lock combination, parking permit and use permit. The company placed a combination padlock on a gate leading to a small parking area off Willow Creek Road. The parking permit is to be displayed in your car while you're there and the permit is to be on your person.

"We don't really have a maximum number of permits in mind," said John Ramaley, Mendocino Redwood forester in charge of the Willow Creek property. "We'll have to see what kind of response we get."

The program has been in place for more than a year now, used mostly by locals who heard word-of-mouth.

"So far, it's been running smoothly," said Michelle Whitman, who lives nearby and volunteered to process the permit applications.

Critics wary of owners

The property and the public access project are not controversy-free.

Mendocino Redwood, a business born three years ago to buy Louisiana-Pacific's holdings in Mendocino and Sonoma counties, is owned by a holding company controlled by the Fisher family of San Francisco, owner of The Gap, Old Navy and Banana Republic clothing stores.

Mendocino Redwood is trying to position itself as an environmentally friendly logging company. After a process marked by much criticism from both industry and environmental camps, Mendocino Redwood won certification in November as practitioner of sustainable forestry techniques from the Forest Stewardship Council, an international trade group.

Critics, some of whom question whether any logging company could be environmentally friendly, say the company isn't doing enough to protect Willow Creek and Freezeout Creek, both waterways for salmon going home to spawn.

Critics say logging already has damaged the watershed and extra measures need to be taken to repair the damage and to prevent further harm.

"We need verification in the form of scientific evidence that what they're doing won't damage the watershed," said Peter Myers, a neighbor and a member of Western Watershed Alliance, a group formed to protect the Willow Creek watershed.

Mendocino Redwood Company is better than its predecessor when it comes to the environment, there's no question about that," Myers said. "They're not cutting as heavily as Louisiana-Pacific did and they are doing some mitigations, but being better may not be enough. They should monitor the water quality."

In response, Chris Surfleet, hydrologist with Mendocino Redwood Co., said, "Willow Creek does have some severe sediment problems associated with historic logging practices and we have a comprehensive plan of attack that includes monitoring water quality in the creek."

"We do know that the lower reaches of the creek that aren't on our property are impacted from logging and we are taking steps to deal with that," he said.

Myers and the Western Watershed Alliance are not too concerned about any harm public access might bring to Willow Creek but others are.

Neighbors, some of whom live on Willow Creek Road and asked not to be identified, said they worry about increased traffic on their small, winding, road, portions of which are unpaved.

And state parks officials worry that rough use of the land, such as the use of off-road vehicles, might cause erosion that would add to the downstream sediment already drying up Willow Creek.

"There are parts of the lower channel of the creek on state park property that are so bad now all you see is a dry gravel bed," Pasquinelli said. "Mendocino Redwood didn't just buy Louisiana-Pacific's business, it bought the headaches as well and this is one of them."

Application for a permit is required. Here's how to do it:

  • Contact Michelle Whitman, 874-2305, e-mail:
  • Read, fill out, sign and return liability release.
  • Receive combinations to gate locks.
  • Carry permit on your person and display parking permit in car when on property.