Residents battle proposed logging plan near Felta Creek
By Tom Gogola
A Humboldt County businessman appears poised to get the green light from the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection (Cal Fire) to log most of a forested 160-acre Healdsburg parcel crossed by Felta Creek.
Felta Creek is a tributary of the Russian River and one of a dwindling number of regional creeks where endangered wild coho salmon spawn.
Ken Bareilles’ timber harvest plan (THP) has gone through two rounds of review at Cal Fire and awaits a proposed July 28 sign-off from the Santa Rosa regional office of the agency now reviewing public comments. Then it heads to Cal Fire director Ken Pimlott or his representative for a final approval, according to an online Cal Fire explainer detailing the THP process. Cal Fire forestry official Anthony Lukacic has been the agency’s point-person through the process.
Bareilles says he has every expectation that Cal Fire will approve his THP, which will be executed by Redwood Valley logger Randy Jacobszoon. If they don’t, he’s suing Cal Fire. And if they do, a coalition of opponents has pledged to sue Cal Fire as well, to seek an injunction against the harvest.
The final sign-off is contingent upon the consideration of more than 70 public comments submitted to the THP by residents and an array of environmental and fisheries organizations concerned about the salmon. The fate of the coho are among an array of issues that have arisen as the plan has made its way through the approval process this year.
Dry Creek and its tributaries have been part of a federal-state program that set out to save the coho. Fisheries experts say Felta Creek is a key piece to the potential recovery of the coho. The California Department of Fish and Wildlife reports that, as recently as 2012, Felta Creek was the only tributary of Dry Creek that supported coho salmon-spawn “redds” in its gravel beds during the years-long drought just ended. The winding and well-canopied creek runs year-round, even in the worst of the drought years—and with the rain-soaked winter of 2016–17 in the rear-view, fisheries experts are hopeful that it provided a huge boost to coho and steelhead stocks.
A public comment submitted by Sebastopol resident Sandy Eastoak on June 26 pithily summed up the arc and scope of the concerns about this timber-harvest plan. She cited a litany of concerns that echo through the dozens of public comments filed in opposition to the plan: logging on steep slopes that could lend to the possibly of landslides, creek sedimentation, questions over the structural integrity of bridges over the creek that logging trucks would use, fire safety along the winding Felta Creek Road, and the safety of residents and nearby schoolchildren at the West Side Elementary School located at the bottom of Felta Creek Road.
Other critics highlighted the approved use of a chemical agent called Dust-Off to suppress dust raised on Felta Creek Road, which runs adjacent to the creek, noting that the magnesium chloride–based product has been studied and shown to be toxic to humans and animals alike.
“But the overwhelming, urgent reason to block this rapacious plan,” Eastoak wrote, “is that destroying salmon habitat in our already decimated area is shocking, ignorant and ecologically criminal.”
Bareilles says the THP addresses or mitigates these various concerns, and says some have been overstated. He stresses that none of the logging will be done adjacent to the creek, where a deep buffer zone of forest will remain intact. He’s agreed to limits on when logging trucks can use Felta Creek Road and says he’s done everything asked of him by Cal Fire. He bought the land for $2.5 million in 2015 and says it’s currently listed on the market for $7.5 million, should an appropriate buyer come forward—and notes that there’s more than $3 million worth of timber on the land, which is zoned for logging. He says he won’t refrain from logging the land once a promised lawsuit is filed, “unless someone comes along and buys the property.”
In the meantime, he’s already got purchase orders pending with Redwood Empire and a Mendocino lumber company. “I’m hoping they’ll sign the plan this week,” he says. “They said they are going to approve it.”
Residents and activists are convinced that the fix is in on this THP. Indeed, Cal Fire’s matrix of the numerous THPs under consideration across the region and state would seem to indicate as much.
As of July 17, the state agency’s database of THP applications indicated the “approved” box had been checked on this project with an approval date of July 28, 2017. Cal Fire’s website explains the approved box is “the date the THP was approved by the Cal Fire Director.”
How can something be approved before it is approved? On July 18, Dennis Hall, assistant deputy director for forest practices at Cal Fire, explained that the July 28 marker was a “tentative date for our staff in Santa Rosa to make a determination,” and added that the date in fact reflected “an extension granted by the landowner to complete the review.”
The review, he said, is still ongoing, and July 28 is “the earliest date we could approve it—that is a tentative date, although that’s the date that’s agreed to by the owner and us to come up with a plan.” However, by July 20, the “approved” box found on the online document was blank again.
To Felta Creek Road resident Dan Imhoff, the premature Cal Fire sign-off reveals a pro forma public comment period and an agency that tilts to the demands of the state’s logging industry.
Noting that the agency has to provide official responses to dozens of public comments before it approves the proposal, Imhoff called Cal Fire “a criminally negligent agency. They have people approving plans and hauling operations they haven’t even examined with their own two eyes. They make decisions based on regulations in red books whose rules they can’t even remember in public meetings. They disregard other agencies’ expertise because they have a history of disagreement over fish protection versus industrial logging.”
Imhoff highlighted the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and its subsidiary, the National Marine Fisheries Services (NMFS), as agencies whose recommendations have thus far been ignored or otherwise downplayed in the THP process.
The harvest plan serves as an environmental impact report (EIR) required under the California Environmental Quality Act “The THP actually serves as a certified program that is functionally equivalent to an EIR, so it does require that we do an interagency review,” says Hall. That review brought in input from numerous state agencies with a stake in the outcome.
In 2016, the NMFS conducted a fish survey of Felta Creek to assess the robustness of the salmon and steelhead trout that also spawn in the Russian River’s tributaries. Alecia Van Atta, assistant regional administrator at NMFS, highlighted that not only is Felta Creek a critical year-round habitat for the coho—but that fisheries experts rely on it as a control stream to inform their overall coho-management practices.
Felta Creek has been identified by NMFS as one of six creeks in the Russian River ecosystem “where habitat restoration and threat abatement are the two highest priorities to advance recovery and prevent extinction of coho salmon,” Van Atta wrote in a NOAA document dated April 14, 2017. That document was submitted to Dominik Schwab, the Santa Rosa–based Cal Fire Forest Practice program manager now reviewing the public comments.
Local officials have also raised alarm over the THP. State Sen. Mike McGuire wrote Pimlott in late June asking that he extend the public comment period to allow for a full transportation impact study and more time to explore an acceptable timber plan that wouldn’t threaten Felta Creek’s fragile coho population.
Imhoff, part of a new nonprofit called Friends of the Felta Creek, says he’s not opposed to some logging of the land, which has not been harvested since 1994. He calls for, at most, a scaled-down THP that would focus on the selection of single trees for harvesting, instead of the 146-acre harvest under consideration as part of the THP.
He adds, however, that not enough time or effort has been put into alternative solutions to harvesting the land and that alternatives to logging were summarily dismissed in the THP as unworkable.
Cal Fire’s Hall says the fix is not in on the THP, despite residents’ concerns. If issues are raised in the public comment period that haven’t been adequately addressed, “then we may have to recirculate that portion of the plan for public comment. There is a possibility,” he adds, that the “public comment period could be extended.”
Larry Hanson, executive director of Forests Unlimited, which has been counseling Felta Creek residents as the process has played out, is less than convinced that Cal Fire will do right by the coho. The approved-not-approved switch-out on the agency’s spreadsheets, he says, gives every indication that the agency will approve the THP this week.
“They just seem to want to do it,” he says.