Fight over Gualala River logging plan heads to federal court

THE PRESS DEMOCRAT
July 14, 2020
Guy Kovner

A five-year battle over plans to log in the remote Gualala River flood plain has taken a big step up with a powerhouse environmental group’s declaration to take the case to federal court, alleging the commercial tree harvest would harm protected fish, frogs and birds.

Friends of Gualala River, a grassroots group with an email list of about 600 people, now has the legal muscle of the Center for Biological Diversity, an environmental organization with a global reach and a $20 million annual budget, on its side.

“It is a welcome turn of events,” said Charles Ivor, president of the Gualala-based group that has stalled a 342-acre state-approved timber harvest plan since 2016.

The local group secured a state appeals court order in April temporarily halting the Dogwood project pursued by Gualala Redwood Timber LLC, which owns the land

“We’ve stopped it every year,” Ivor said.

Six weeks ago he called the center in search of an ally to prevent logging along about five miles of the Gualala River and several other waterways in a 191,000-acre watershed.

“The center jumped in,” Ivor said. It required a $175,000 payment for the legal service and the local group is seeking donations to cover the cost, he said.

“We’re going to do our best to protect this precious place,” said Peter Galvin, co-founder of the center, which claims an 83% success rate in environmental litigation.

The Gualala River, which runs along the Sonoma-Mendocino county line, is “starting to make a comeback,” he said. “This would really deal it a setback.”

In a formal notice of intent to file a federal claim, the center asserted last week the proposed logging of second-growth timber would include redwood trees of 90 to 100 years old in the flood plain of the lower Gualala River watershed.

Opponents say that work, including building temporary roads and hauling logs through the forest, would harm or kill federally protected steelhead, coho salmon, red-legged frogs, marbled murrelets and spotted owls.

Proponents Gualala Redwood Timber have twice secured state approval for the project based on dozens safeguards and assurances that endangered species, soils and water quality would not be significantly impacted.

The Endangered Species Act of 1973, called for and signed by then-President Richard Nixon, prohibits “any further harm” to a species deemed at risk of extinction, said Stuart Gross, a San Francisco attorney handling center’s case.The center’s proposed federal action is distinct from the Friends of Gualala River state case, which challenges Cal Fire’s approval of the Dogwood timber plan.
The filing on July 9 started a mandatory 60-day period allowing both sides to discuss a settlement before the lawsuit is officially filed.

Gualala Redwood Timber and Cal Fire have that time “to fix what we’re talking about,” Gross said. “Unfortunately that rarely happens.”

The timber company did not respond to a request for comment Monday.

Felling trees along the Gualala waterways would eliminate shade that keeps water cold enough for young steelhead and salmon to survive the summer, Ivor contended.

A 2016 federal recovery plan for Northern California steelhead said logging is a “primary contributor” to the species’ dwindling numbers and cited the Gualala River as “essential” for its recovery, the center said in a press release.

Marbled murrelets, a seabird, and northern spotted owls rely on stands of old forests with dense canopies for nesting, the release said.

The Dogwood harvest plan would include an area along the Gualala River’s main stem and South Fork eyed decades ago for an expansion of Sonoma County’s Gualala Point Regional Park.

Conservation groups were unsuccessful in previous bids to purchase the land.

Ivor said his group is not opposed to “selective cutting” in the watershed “as long as it is not egregious.”

Charll Stoneman, forest manager for Gualala Redwood Timber, has previously said the harvest area, much of it clear-cut at the turn of the last century, is now so densely wooded that light cannot get through and the crowded trees can’t gain size.

The harvest plan would take the same approach as a conservation group would if it acquired the land, he said.