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Defending the Redwoods in Sonoma: How a Neighborhood Fought Back (Op Ed #1)

Defending the Redwoods in Sonoma: How a Neighborhood Fought Back (Op Ed #1)
by Pamela Conley

What did a community in Northern California do when 645 acres nearby were about to be logged? Here's how an artist, a writer, a math professor, a retired elder, and other community members protected a first-class stream that supported threatened native fish, the northern spotted owl habitat, and one of Sonoma County's last old growth groves.

Buy the Legacy Of Luna The Legacy of Luna, Julia Butterfly Hill. The dramatic story of devotion and dedication to the old growth forests and the great tree, Luna.

What can we do?

Faced with three adjoining timber harvest plans (THPs) coming up for approval by the California Department of Forestry (CDF) with a total of 645 acres adjacent to their homes, a small group of neighbors got together on a Sunday afternoon in the summer of 1998 and asked the question, 'What can we do?'

Their concerns were a first-class stream that supported threatened native fish, the northern spotted owl habitat, and one of Sonoma County's last old growth groves. They were also concerned about the instability of the area with an earthquake fault line, and the high rainfall they receive every year.

The group included an artist, a writer, an art professor, a professor of math, a contractor, two teachers, a horse-show producer, a student, and a retired elder, among others. They invited several people from their community who were knowledgeable in fighting these kinds of battle. One of these people was Jay Halcomb who had organized Russian River Residents Against Unsafe Logging (RRRAUL).

With the help of RRRAUL and Helen Libeu's group Citizens for Watershed Protection they began the tedious process of learning how to read and process timber harvest plans; and they formed their own group, Austin Creek Alliance (ACA).

Life became hectic for this fledgling group. They hired their own geologist to give an evaluation of the stability of the area. Then they hired a small airplane and and took aerial shots of the numerous slides in the area and the magnificent old growth redwoods. More than 100 letters arrived at CDF headquarters questioning the aspects of the three plans.

The First Timber Harvest Plan

People called CDF on a daily basis to determine when the first THP was scheduled for public review. The reviews were never scheduled until the day before, making it difficult for the public to be there.

When the meeting for the THP came up for review, ACA had called out the forces and the CDF was surprised when 40 well prepared citizens showed up at the CDF headquarters to protest the approval of the THP. They presented their evidence elegantly and pleaded their case. The THP was rejected and the property owners decided to withdraw their plan to log.

The Second Timber Harvest Plan.

Spurred on by success, the groups turned their attention to the second THP coming up for review. One of the main concerns of the group regarding this plan was the Jack London Grove, a group of old growth trees that can be seen from Duncan Mills standing like sentinels on the top of the ridge. This grove consisted of approximately 30 big mature trees. They were marked to be logged with blue paint. ACA and RRRAUL had photographs of them.

ACA, RRRAUL, and Citizens for Watershed Protection immediately brought the old growth to the attention of the CDF requesting a marbled murrelets study. The murrelets are a sea bird that depend completely on old growth to nest. The CDF requested the study, delaying the cutting of the old trees for another three years.

The property was owned by the sons of one of the old families of the community. Concerned for their good reputation as businessmen and long-standing residents, the owners were willing to meet with ACA members. ACA suggested they try to obtain a conservation easement that would pay them to protect the old growth trees, and with help from other members in the community, they were able to do this.

But their biggest problem was the Registered Professional Forester (RPF) they hired to write the THP. Unfamiliar with the terrain in this part of California, the RPF wrote a poor THP. With ACA watching the case, the CDF had to deny the plan after four rewrites costing the property owners a lot of time and money. The plan was eventually approved with much mitigation, but only 75 acres were logged out of the original request of 225 acres and the logging was done by the CDF's rule book.

The Third Timber Harvest Plan.

The third THP came up for review. ACA, RRRAUL, and Helen Libeu once again had their forces of neighbors at the public review meeting the day before Thanksgiving, despite only one day's notice.

But in spite of their thoughtfully presented and well argued points, the CDF approved the plan. The most disturbing issue was the similarity of this plan to the first one. The property owner of this last THP was not a member of the community. In fact, he was a wealthy businessman in the wine industry, and whose only interest in the trees was money.

Faced with no other solution, ACA, RRRAUL, and Citizens for Watershed Protection decided to sue the CDF for approving a plan that did not uphold the rules written in their Forestry Rules Handbook. With the help of Helen Libeu they hired Paul Carroll, an environmental lawyer from Menlo Park, to be their lawyer.

ACA members bravely began writing e-mails and letters, and stuffing mailboxes requesting donations to litigate. To the amazement of ACA, the money began to come. The landowner fired his lawyer and hired a lawyer from Ukiah who had represented Pacific Lumber in other cases.

A new neighbor, Jim Wheaton, found one of the flyers in his mailbox, and came to the aid of ACA. A lawyer himself, he was the founder of Environmental Law Foundation (ELF), and offered matching funds in the year 2000, and a lawyer to help with the case. The group with the help of ELF was able to raise a substantial amount of money.

On December 20th, the court case was decided in favor of ACA, RRRAUL, and Citizens for Watershed Protection. The judge said that, 'the CDF had shown a great prejudicial abuse of its power by approving this THP.'

The land owner has recently come back with amendments to the court order. However, ACA, RRRAUL, and Citizens for Watershed Protection are at the table making certain that all of the CDF's rules will be followed appropriately.

And Into the Future.

ACA has become the environmental watchdog of their neighborhood and ACA members are currently studying a new THP that has been filed to log 49 acres next to Austin Creek.

See also these pages.


Buy Old-Growth Forests Field Guide to Old-Growth Forests by Larry Eifert. Discover and explore the ancient lowland forests from California, north through Oregon, to Washington Olympic Peninsula, to Canada, and to the Sitka spruce forests of Alaska.
Giants in the Earth Giants in the Earth by Peter Johnstone (Editor), Peter E. Palmquist (Photographer)
Buy Trees and Shrubs of California Trees and Shrubs of California (California Natural History Guides) by John David Stuart, et al.