Judge puts controversial Healdsburg logging plan on hold

September 12, 2018

Narrow, steep road to residences slated to be used for logging trucks
Narrow, steep road to residences slated to be used for logging trucks

Planned logging near a Healdsburg stream that provides some of the last refuge in the region for wild coho salmon has been put on hold after a court decision overturned a timber harvest plan for the 160-acre site.

Sonoma County Superior Court Judge Rene Chouteau determined last month that the plan approved by Cal Fire last fall inadequately analyzed potential impacts for endangered and threatened fish species in Felta Creek and the greater Russian River watershed into which it drains.

Chouteau also agreed with neighbors’ claim that property owner Ken Bareilles failed to sufficiently address the effects of logging trucks on narrow roadways and five rural bridges they would travel to haul lumber from the remote parcel.

The resolution is unlikely to be the final chapter in the dispute, with both sides anticipating ongoing legal battles.

“The land isn’t safe until it has a conservation easement on it or a harvest plan geared for limited, smaller-scale logging, said Lucy Kotter, a one-time forester and a spokeswoman for Friends of Felta Creek, which was formed to block the plan.

Bareilles, a Eureka attorney, said Wednesday he still hopes he can start logging in the spring and intended to revise and resubmit his timber harvest plan for approval in the meantime.

He said concerns regarding traffic and bridges would be more easily addressed than those related to at-risk fish populations, but he said a sustained rise in lumber prices meant he wouldn’t lose any money while he worked the problems out.

“This is a bump in the road, if you want to call it that – this court ruling,” Bareilles said. “But it just delays us.”

Chouteau’s Aug. 20 decision is the latest round in what’s now a year-and-a-half battle fought by neighbors including Kotter and environmentalists to halt the logging project near Felta Creek, a cold, clear stream which provides rare habitat for diminishing salmon and steelhead trout runs once abundant on the North Coast. Even in years when spawning wild salmon have failed to show anywhere else in the area, they have returned to Felta Creek, local biologists say.

Opponents had managed for several months to stall approval of the logging plan, which endured two rounds of public comment and revisions before it won approval from Cal Fire on Nov. 17.

By then, some of the steepest slopes had been removed from the logging area and provisions to safeguard against hillside erosion and other environmental harms had been strengthened.

But Friends of Felta Creek sued the state forestry agency, arguing that protections in the document remained inadequate, given the proposed large-scale logging, the vulnerability of the landscape and the narrow, winding canyon access. They secured a temporary injunction on any logging while the case was pending.

“Really, what we’re concerned about, is once they start cutting, they’re going to cut hard and they’re going to cut deep,” said Bob Legge, policy and outreach coordinator for the Russian Riverkeeper, a conservation group. “And when you do anything in a fragile watershed like that, you’re going to have complications that go on for years.”

Bareilles and his wife, Linda, bought the land – which is zoned for timber production – in 2015 for $2.5 million with plans to log redwood and Douglas fir and then resell it for homesites.

Bareilles has a somewhat checkered past as a developer and has twice been convicted in Humboldt County for violating regulations shielding waterways and wildlife habitat, among other offenses. Critics in Sonoma County say his past is part of their concern.

But Bareilles has repeatedly said that maintaining the natural beauty of the land and the watershed is in his own self-?interest, so he can maintain the profitability of the property.

He said several conservation agencies have explored the possibility of buying the property but were rejected because “they don’t want to pay us anything for the timber.”

Attorney Tom Lippe, who represents Friends of Felta Creek, said there remain many opportunities to challenge Bareilles’ plans.

The Russian River watershed is listed as impaired under the Clean Water Act because of excess sediment accumulated over decades of human activity, including logging, farming, road building and other development.

“This project is going to put more sediment in the river and in the streams,” said Lippe, posing another risk for imperiled fish species.

“The characterization that this is a speed bump is in the eye of the beholder,” Lippe said.