[ | MetroActive Central | ]
Standing Tall: In a battle that has pitted neighbor against neighbor, the Rev. Randy Hurley is fighting plans to log fir trees that rise majestically behind his house.
Anatomy of a timber harvest plan: How the logging industry pushed hard on an Alpine Valley neighborhood
By Dylan Bennett
Upstream from everywhere in the Sonoma County basin, the evergreen mountains of Alpine Valley are home to spotted owls, towering Douglas firs, spawning salmon, and privacy-loving humans. St. Helena Road winds like a serpent through the valley.
The remote, winding road, shaded by a romantic canopy of trees, roughly traces the rambling path of Mark West Creek. Just a few minutes drive from Rincon Valley northeast of Santa Rosa, Alpine Valley residents live on large parcels of land, enjoying remarkable quietness and natural beauty. Neighbors in the area include a concert-promoting reverend, an eclectic scientist and artist, a merchant marine, a nature-products retail store owner, a Quaker commune, a San Francisco attorney, a winemaker, and a school superintendent. In recent months, this idyllic forest setting has become a volatile battleground.
A timber harvest plan (THP) filed in March with state forestry officials proposing logging on the property of local resident Robert Harper marked the first shot fired in a dramatic clash between the timber industry-state forestry complex and neighbors intent on preserving local community values.
The plan to selectively log 27 acres of mature Douglas firs at the origins of Mark West Creek has outraged Harper's neighbors. At least six families have formed the grass-roots Indian Rock Alliance to oppose the project, due to be approved in mid-December by the California Department of Forestry.
If the project is approved, the alliance may sue the CDF to stop the logging for what they say is a lack of a fair review process. "People on this road have children, have jobs, they're retired. There's a great cross-section up here," says the Rev. Randy Hurley, a local resident since 1979 and Harper's next-door neighbor. "What's in common is our attraction to this area, the nature here. It fulfills something in each person who lives here. So it's radical to see the desecration of it."
Harper, superintendent of the Kenwood School District, says he wants to selectively clear just the congested forest and cut down "an occasional tree." The logging should give him only enough capital to improve a dirt road to the top of the mountain, he says, where he wants to build his dream house.
"I'm a member of the Sierra Club," explains Harper. "We're not going to do something that's harmful."
His neighbors disagree.
While highly publicized timber wars in Humboldt County focus on the state and federal deal to purchase ancient Headwaters Forest from Pacific Lumber, and plans by E&J Gallo to log environmentally sensitive lands in west county grab local headlines, this relatively small cut in a rural residential area introduces a no-less-pressing local question: How can citizens respond when their neighbor wants to cut down his trees?
It's known as the problem of "urban interface"--when quiet country living and the roar of chain saws collide.
Conservationists hope to protect oak woodlands.
THPs on the Rise
THE CONTROVERSIAL St. Helena Road plan is just one of several local timber wars creating political gunfire as Sonoma County feels the heat of a rapid increase in logging. In 1993, 33 timber harvest plans were filed to cut 5,483 acres of forest. By 1996, that figure had jumped nearly 20 percent as 47 THPs called for the cutting of 6,921 acres.
Activists and timber insiders alike say Louisiana-Pacific and other Mendocino County loggers have literally "cut themselves out of business" by logging far beyond sustainable limits. Late last month, L-P's announcement that it will sell off its redwood timber operations on the North Coast seemed to dramatically confirm the depletion of Mendocino County's timber reserves.
Now timber companies are looking to Sonoma County's many small landowners and their abundant local supply of timber to fill the void.
"We have this plague of out-of-state big operators," says Helen Libeu, the matriarch of timber activism in Sonoma County. "Assessors' rolls are being combed to find people to approach to buy up the timber or the timberland. The out-of-state timber owners generally have no ongoing interest in the future of the property. Their forester is generally instructed to 'let her rip.' And that is exciting more neighbors than it used to."
THPs that are meeting stiff resistance locally include 174 acres of California oaks and other trees on the Gallo property on Westside Road in Forestville, 35 acres of old-growth redwoods on Fitzpatrick Lane in Occidental, and another 89 acres near Hulbert Creek in Guerneville. A plan to cut 66 acres on a steep hill in a densely populated Monte Rio neighborhood was stopped recently by persistent community activists. In each case, residents fight the CDF on a now-familiar list of environmental and procedural grievances, including wildlife habitat and flooding.
On St. Helena Road, alliance members say the Harper THP is bad science, bad government, and bad behavior. The neighbors argue that the logging plan is unacceptably harmful to the environment and local drinking water supplies; that the CDF has disregarded the legal rights of neighbors; and that the THP originates from an unaccountable nexus of landowners, timber brokers, logging operators, foresters, and state officials.
Erosion and increased runoff in the aftermath of the logging plan, they say, will irrevocably damage the sensitive environment of Mark West Creek, with its 100-plus degree summer heat, extensive winter rainfall, and unique wildlife habitat.
"Remember the flash flood on January 15 of this year in Windsor in which Highway 101 was closed?" asks Michael Gates, a self-described technocrat who lives downstream from Harper. "This is where the flood came from. This is the source. Within two to four hours, we had over four to six inches of rain. And I'm a technical authority on weather measurements."
Gates, a 26-year resident of St. Helena Road, owns 60 acres of wilderness valued conservatively at $750,000. He lives in a self-built custom home just meters from the creek. "[Harper's] cut is at the apex of Sonoma County. He's on the west side of the top of the ridge. Everything from there down will be changed. The water and air temperature, the sediments. The shade canopy will be gone, and the dew-gathering abilities; the percolation and accumulation of water from the clouds ... that won't be happening."
Water from winter rains, mud-filled and no longer restrained by trees and vegetation, will not only flood Windsor again, Gates says, but destroy the salmon habitat in Mark West Creek.
The anticipated damage to the riparian habitat would come at time when both coho and steelhead salmon have been listed as threatened species, and when salmon fingerlings have been spotted in the creek for the first time in many years. Rare spotted owls also live in the area. "I could live wherever I choose," say Gates, who has traveled the world from the Amazon to Siberia. "This is the most diversified environment I have experienced by far."
He says the local forests are home to the Pacific gray salamander, incandescent insects, giant moths, pygmy owls, and snails with salmon-colored, cube-shaped shells. "There's the shade canopy up there," explains Gates. "On days like today, that hillside, instead of being a radiator for the 100-degree temperature, will be blatantly reflecting all that, heating up the dirt, heating up the water, heating the air. As the air rises, it brings less cool air down into the canyon, so [logging] will change the entire ecology of the canyon."
But Harper disagrees with that assessment. "As for loss of habitat, there's just not anything being stripped off or cleared away," he responds. "The only place there are trees taken is where it's already crowded. It's extremely crowded up there. The trees are fighting each other for growth room. So the habitat will remain, and I don't believe it will be damaged."
Hurley, a veteran political activist, perceives the proposed cut as a direct physical threat to his well-being. His drinking water comes from two spring boxes located on Harper's property. Hurley has access to the spring by way of a formal water easement that has legally guaranteed him a right to the water since 1979, when he purchased his 18-acre property. Harper plans to cut down selected trees on all sides of the spring boxes.
The potential negative effect on Hurley's water supply make Hurley anxious and angry--and add insult to injury. He says the spring boxes were already badly damaged in 1992, when Harper hired a bulldozer to cut a road to the top of the hill. Since then, he says, he has experienced declining water quality and has lost water for two to three weeks at a time in both summer and winter.
"My friends loved the taste of the water," says Hurley. "They used to bottle it to take home. It was clean, life-giving water. Now it's brown, blue-brown sometimes. It's disgusting."
Harper's new dirt road was "red-tagged," or condemned, by the county Planning Department for lack of a grading permit. An approved state THP would lift the red tag. "The truth of the matter is, the rock fell down and broke the spring box and introduced some dirt into the system," says Harper. "But it doesn't rely on any surface water. It's underground water, and the spring production is variable depending on the climate. It's a cyclical thing. We have done nothing to affect the volume of the water; Mother Nature has."
State geologist Tom Spitler says rock boulders crushed the cover of one spring box, which was "substantially filled with sediment" and "significantly damaged." He says there's "good evidence the system was affected by the damage."
CDF official Chuck Abshear, chair of the THP-review team, says the spring boxes were "a real mess," and must be fixed for the logging plan to be approved. Abshear, however, says he has "no expectation" that Hurley's water supply will be further affected by the proposed logging. Spitler also believes the cut won't hurt Hurley's water supply, but admits "water is not an exact science."
Hurley remains unconvinced.
He insists that nobody really knows what the effect will be, and that he should not be put at risk. In addition, he cites recent reports about the gasoline additive MTBE in California's new gasoline being known for polluting water supplies. He says MTBE will certainly be present in the logging vehicles driving over the watershed that feeds his spring.
Forest Matriarch: Longtime timber activist Helen Libeu blames out-of-state timber interests for fanning the flame of local greed.
Politics of Wood
THE ENVIRONMENTAL CONCERNS of Hurley and the Indian Rock Alliance have been nearly overshadowed by their crash course in the politics of wood. Residents are angered at how the THP carries tremendous bureaucratic momentum from the CDF. They argue that the review process--in which about 94 percent of all THPs are easily approved--is weighted in favor of the applicant and question the CDF's protocol for considering the interests of local residents.
"I found, through this process," says Hurley, "that the people who I thought protected the resources of the people in trust, the Department of Forestry, are nothing but a rubber-stamp agency capable of only aiding those with money, and trying to keep our mills going, rather than seeking alternatives, demanding alternatives, and protecting the precious resources."
Indeed, even CDF's Abshear acknowledges that the mission of the CDF is to mitigate environmental impacts below a significant level while promoting the harvest of conifer trees. He says that although THPs can be severely restricted by environmental conditions, there exists no formal mechanism to prevent logging permits.
But the alliance says its environmental and legal concerns have been either ignored or handled in bad faith. A review of the official THP on file at the CDF office in Santa Rosa reveals a thick stack of letters from a large cast of neighbors in Alpine Valley. There are polite, articulate letters of concern, copies of famous Native American quotes about the environment, and enraged hand-scribbled notes. The letters have lain mute in their folder without any response from CDF officials.
In October, the relationship between the CDF and the alliance exploded into controversy during the final THP review meeting, when Abshear ejected Hurley from the meeting after Hurley reportedly called Abshear "a toll-taker for the capitalist system."
Hurley concludes: "You pay taxes, but you have no right to open your mouth. It's taxation without representation." As well, alliance members who tape-recorded the meeting say that Abshear blatantly disrespected public comments, even laughing at the concerns of 75-year-old Alpine Valley resident Ann Donnels, whose land has been included in the THP for use as a loading zone without her consent. Also, Neal Creek Road, a private dirt road used by Donnels and resident Bill Woods, is written into the THP for use by logging trucks without the consent of either Donnels or Woods.
"I see so many things that are not honest with them," says Donnels of the CDF. "I'm mad as hops," snaps the 36-year Alpine Valley resident.
According to Hurley, Abshear said, to the horror of those in attendance, that "with the stroke of a pen," he can do anything he wants. "He was rude. He was unprofessional. He was undignified," says Hurley. "And our lives and property are on the line.
"I'm just sick of the whole process."
Rick Coates, executive director of Forests Unlimited, a forestry-practices watchdog group, is watching the Harper application at the request of his friend, Alpine Valley resident David Bannister, who owns the Nature Store in Coddingtown Mall. Bannister is past president of the Sonoma County chapter of the Sierra Club.
Coates delivers a scathing appraisal of the CDF and the official measures to curtail environmental damage. "The mitigations are by and large insufficient. And, in fact, contrary to law," claims Coates. "Particularly the endangered species [mitigations] are often contrary to law. [CDF officials] have done what they could to pretend to be addressing those issues. But the fact of life is that this plan, like every other [THP], will be approved. ...
"They use phony logic and absolutely laughable non sequiturs at times," he adds, "and the public really has no recourse. CDF has a set of boilerplate answers they use over and over."
One problem, Coates says, is that the CDF's official response to citizens' complaints comes only at the end of the review process, when the THP already is approved.
"Junk science is practiced at CDF like root beer-float making is practiced at Foster Freeze," he says. " Junk-Science-R-Us is who they are. It would be funny if it weren't for the fact that it's really a way of stealing resources and stealing other people's property values and the public's resources [in the creek and the river].. After all, they're talking about, like, fisheries. Those resources belong to everybody. They are destroying a whole industry for the narrow benefit of multinational timber companies."
FOR ALLIANCE MEMBERS, environmental anxieties and frustrations with the CDF are worsened by a lack of neighborly discussion over the matter, and by a business backdrop that includes out-of-town timber brokers.
Harper sold the timber rights on his property to Southern Californian timber project manager Brian Ivener, who does business from a Phoenix, Ariz., firm. Ivener, in turn, retained the services of local logger Miles Dupret, who Ivener says does a "fine job."
But Dupret is a logger with his share of legal problems. He is being sued by St. Helena Road resident Bill Wood, who had hired Dupret in 1992 to log three acres of forests, for allegedly neglecting to clean up the "slash" left after the logging operation or to pay Wood $25,000 [for harvested timber]. Dupret, who says he was "scapegoated" in the Woods case, also faces five lawsuits involving timber harvests in Cazadero, where he allegedly failed to pay the landowners for their trees.
County court records show that in 1995 Dupret settled a $75,000 lawsuit brought by Eric and Janet Ziedrich of Healdsburg for a 1992 logging contract. They claimed that Dupret "so negligently carried out his logging activities, in general, and so negligently maintained his reputation in the industry, and negligently misrepresented his qualifications and reputation," that they withdrew from the contract lest their timber harvest application be hampered or delayed.
Others have sued Dupret for cutting trees on private property adjacent to a site approved for timber harvesting.
"I'm not against a project like [the Harper THP]," says Alpine Valley neighbor Jim Doerkson, a retired civil engineer who selectively logged about 500 acres in the 1970s. "The only thing I'm against is that I think they're going to do some overcutting. Miles Dupret, you know, he's out there raping the land, and I'm just against things like that. I've looked at his projects. They're a mess. This is what's so unfortunate, because if people log correctly--selectively cut, clean up their slash--there isn't a problem. It's like growing a crop.
"When people just go out there and just get wild with bulldozers and rip things down, damage other trees, and leave huge piles of slash around, drive into the creek with their bulldozers--it's just garbage."
Dupret says the lawsuits are limited to minor cleanup issues, and that in 26 years he has never been cited for violations. For Donnels, the elderly neighbor on Neal Creek Road, the prospect of Dupret cutting trees near her property, where a proper survey has not been done, is unsettling. Donnels and others in the area also suspect that the logging revenues will disappear into Ivener's Arizona escrow account, where they cannot be "attached" by court order in the event of civil litigation.
Most alliance members believe Harper--who Hurley contends is contractually obligated to sell his timber to Ivener--could get burned on the deal and may be left with considerable liability. Also, they complain about the manner in which they were contacted by Ivener's registered professional forester Mark Stewart, and not approached directly by Harper.
"Rather than have a dialogue with your neighbor when you want to introduce something to your community, we have to do it in a formalized way to respond to official requests," says Hurley.
Last month, at the behest of the alliance, county Supervisor Mike Cale tried to mediate between Harper and his neighbors, winning a promise from Harper that he would meet with alliance members to iron out their differences.
"It's just words," says Hurley. "So far, not one person has seen any action.
"It boils down to one thing: One man takes out a license, and many neighbors all surrounding that person spend time, money, resources--feelings pouring out--just to protect the property they have and in the hopes that person will leave it alone.
"If there is freedom, somewhere there is a loss of it by this technique."
From the Nov. 13-19, 1997 issue of the Sonoma County Independent.
© Metro Publishing Inc.