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Fight Against Logging Dogwood Flood Plain


Fight Against Logging Dogwood Flood Plain

By Peter Baye

CAL FIRE sued over Approval of “Dogwood”  Redwood Logging in the Gualala River Floodplain 

On July 1st, after more than a year of public opposition and protest, CAL FIRE finally approved the controversial large-scale floodplain redwood logging plan along over five miles of the Gualala River. Two Sonoma County environmental organizations, Forests Unlimited and Friends of Gualala River, represented by Marin County land use attorney Edward Yates, filed a lawsuit in Sonoma County Superior Court to compel the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection (CAL FIRE) to set aside the agency’s July 1st final approval of the “Dogwood” timber harvest plan in Sonoma County.

The lawsuit culminates a troubled history for the controversial floodplain redwood forest logging plan. CAL FIRE had to re-circulate two separate revised and corrected versions of the original error-laden logging plan in late fall 2015 and again in spring 2016. The final approval was delayed until July 1, 2016 as CAL FIRE had to respond to extensive public and expert comments opposed to the plan. 

The approval of the permit was denounced by a July 16th rally and protest of over 200 local citizens, who objected to CAL FIRE’s waiver of regulatory protections of the unique floodplain forest. The festive rally was jointly organized by Jeanne Jackson, a Gualala-based nature columnist and author of the popular Mendonoma Sightings blog, and Friends of Gualala River. All parking lots at the Gualala Regional Park were full, as was overflow parking across highway 1. Some local veterans of redwood logging protests of the 1980s and 1990s who attended remarked that it was one of the largest and most diverse redwood protests on the North Coast in decades. Redwood advocates included Manchester Pomo and Kashaya Pomo families, fishermen, and residents from all over the Sonoma-Mendocino Coast, many of whom brought original artwork on banners and posters. Former State Senator (and current Sonoma County supervisor candidate) Noreen Evans spoke in favor of conserving the floodplain redwood forest, as did even one former Gualala Redwoods logger. The large crowd cheered and applauded when the pending lawsuit was announced. [photos]

The “Dogwood” Timber Harvest Plan covers over 400 acres of nearly pure redwood forest entirely within the river’s protected floodplains from the border of the Sonoma County Regional Park campgrounds near the river mouth, to Twin Bridges on Annapolis Road. The riparian redwood forest, which is periodically submerged by high river flows in winter, is home to sensitive seasonal wetlands, rare plants, and steelhead trout habitat. The riparian redwood forest to be logged is dominated by trees 90 to 100 years old. The river reaches targeted for floodplain logging are designated as Wild and Scenic above the Gualala River’s mouth and estuary.  [photos]

Floodplain redwood forests are forest environments distinct from typical well-drained coastal forests on ridges. Redwoods tolerate flooding and burial by river sediment, but douglas fir trees do not. Floodplain forests are therefore composed nearly pure stands of redwood that grow quickly in rich alluvial flats with shallow groundwater. Seasonal (winter wet, summer dry) and perennial (wet all year) wetlands form in flats and depressions in the floodplain. Rare plants grow in wetlands. The rough intact understory vegetation and natural complex structure of the floodplain forest traps floodwater sediments and improves water quality. Salmonids, including steelhead trout and coho salmon, feed voraciously on invertebrates flooded out of floodplain soil and duff during floodplain submergence. California red-legged frog adults feed in floodplains even when they are drained.  [photos]

The State’s Forest Protection Rules protect flood-prone forests from the disturbances of logging operations, such as road-building. But the applicant requested an exception to the protective flood-prone forest rules, and CAL FIRE’s director, Ken Pimlott, granted the request to log the largest and most mature redwood forest tract in coastal floodplains since the rules protecting them were made. 

CAL FIRE granted the floodplain logging permit to Gualala Redwoods Timber (GRT), which purchased the timberland from Gualala Redwoods Inc., in April 2015. The forest manager of both companies is Henry Alden, who was previously the forest manager Pacific Lumber Company during the Headwaters Forest old-growth redwood clear-cut logging controversy of the 1990s. He is also vice-chair of the Gualala Watershed Council, a non-profit organization that conducts public grant-funded restoration and monitoring projects on GRT timberlands. 

The lawsuit alleges that CAL FIRE’s approval of the “Dogwood” THP is in violation of California Environmental Quality Act (“CEQA”) the Forest Practice Act, and Board of Forestry regulations (California Forest Practice Rules) that implement them. FoGR and FU argue that CAL FIRE improperly ceded its mandate to carefully review the impacts of the timber harvest plan by granting exceptions to rules without requiring the applicant to supply sufficient evidence that impacts are minimized.   CAL FIRE failed to assess reasonable alternatives to the project – including alternatives that minimally comply with existing forest practice rules without exceptions or waivers. Other violations of environmental rules alleged by the plaintiffs address CAL FIRE’s inadequate assessment of significant impacts to floodplain forest wetlands, rare plants, archeological resources, and special-status species. Gualala Redwoods Timber denies that seasonal wetlands exist in the seasonally flooded forest, even where they observed wetland plants. 

“Dogwood” logging operations have temporarily halted after the lawsuit was filed, under an agreement between Friends of Gualala River and Forest Unlimited attorney Yates, and the attorney for Gualala Redwood Timber (real party in interest). A preliminary injunction hearing to suspend logging during the lawsuit is expected in September.  

Both Friends of Gualala River and Forest Unlimited are local nonprofit conservation organizations who have supported non-profit conservation forestry acquisition of Gualala River Watershed timberlands by The Conservation Fund.  Both organizations support a healthy sustainable commercial forest industry adopting conservation practices, they but oppose clear-cutting on ridges and logging in floodplains.  They joined forces to organize public comments opposing the “Dogwood” floodplain logging plan, along with a coalition of environmental organizations including the Dorothy King Young (Mendocino Coast) chapter of the California Native Plant Society (CNPS), Madrone Audubon Society, Sierra Club Redwood Chapter, and Center for Biological Diversity. CNPS has a long history of activism in reforming the Forest Pratice Act and CEQA, and is actively supporting the lawsuit. Fundraising for a dedicated legal defense fund to support Dogwood litigation will soon be initiated by participating organizations. 

Environmental stakes of the lawsuit are both local and regional: "Newer logging rules on the book were designed to minimize logging impacts within a floodplain riparian area. But the precedent set by approval of this this logging plan makes the exception the rule by logging and skid road-building entirely in the Gualala River floodplain, and in an oversize area." said Larry Hanson, President of Forest Unlimited. “This is wrong. We need to correct it."

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