Note: Lana Cohen is a Report For America fellow covering the environment & natural resources for TMV & KZYX. Her position is funded by the Community Foundation of Mendocino, Report for America, & our readers. You can support Lana’s work here or email [email protected]. Contact Cohen at LCohen@mendovoice.com. TMV maintains editorial control.
FORT BRAGG, 2/8/21 — Thick trees sprout up from the ground, stretching their trunks and limbs high into the air, dwarfing everything around them. The ground below is damp, covered in dark brown soil, a blanket of moss, and deep green ferns covered with droplets dripping slowly from their blades. The forest is quiet except for a light breeze rustling the leaves and some birds chirping in the distance, making the cars speeding down the nearby Highway 1 seem worlds away.
Caspar resident Chad Swimmer ventures into Jackson Demonstration State Forest almost every day. He has for 28 years. Swimmer thinks of the forest as Mendocino’s giant backyard, a place for locals and tourists alike to get outside and go on adventures, as well as a safe location for nature to thrive and trees to grow while pulling planet warming carbon dioxide out of the air.
But the forest is earmarked, primarily, for something else altogether — research and timber harvesting. It’s called a “demonstration” forest because the land was originally bought by the state in 1947 to advance and exemplify sustainable logging practices along the North Coast. Essentially, Jackson is the site of one big experiment, testing out different methods of logging, habitat restoration, and fire mitigation, while leaving certain areas untouched as controls.
The western section of Jackson Demonstration State Forest is currently the focal point of the decades old fight between conservationists and the logging industry over how redwood forests should be managed. The California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection (Cal Fire), which owns and manages the forest, has nine timber harvest plans approved, under review or development, lined up for the western region of the forest over the next half decade. The harvests would selectively log around 6,400 acres of timber land, taking trees of all different ages.
But Cal Fire has hit a bit of a roadblock. A small, new environmental group, the Mendocino Trail Stewards, of which Swimmer is one of a few founders, is working to stop the timber harvests from going forward and to protect the western portion of the forest from logging forever. They are pushing to fundamentally change the mandate of the forest, how it’s managed, and how sustainable forestry is implemented in it.
The Stewards aim to implement the changes they seek for the forest by altering the script of the Jackson Demonstration State Forest Management plan, which dictates how the forest is used. Although the management plan, which is updated every 10 years, is not due for an overhaul until 2026, it is under constant review and the Stewards are hoping to see their ideas in writing in the next year, possibly sooner.
Currently, the management plan cites research of sustainable forestry as the priority of the forest, but the Stewards want to change that and preserve the western portion of the forest for climate mitigation, habitat restoration and non-motorized recreation, shielding it from logging except when, in one member’s words “absolutely necessary.” To make that happen they’ve started a petition to turn around 20,000 acres in the western portion of the forest into a reserve.
But foresters, Jackson Demonstration State Forest Advisory Board members, and Cal Fire say this isn’t likely to happen. They can’t envision such a large chunk of the forest, around 40%, being turned into a reserve.
The debate between the Stewards and Cal Fire is yet another iteration of an age-old argument over how humans should interact with nature and the purpose of public land.
“I think it’s important to understand how we got here,” said Matt Simmons, a legal fellow at the Environmental Protection Information Center (EPIC), a nonprofit that advocates for the protection of the North Coast’s forests. “Basically, most of the North Coast was heavily logged by private timber companies from around 1870 to 1940 and we lost 97% of all the old growth forests — 97% of everything that was there when Europeans arrived, was gone.” Realizing this was unsustainable, the state bought the swath of land that is now Jackson and called it a “demonstration forest,” to practice and display sustainable logging.
Jackson Demonstration is 48,652 acres, making it the largest demonstration forest in the state of California. It is one of eight demonstration forests across the state that make up a total of 71,000 acres dedicated to state research on sustainable forestry. So a 20,000 acre preserve in Jackson would be a pretty deep cut into Cal Fire’s dedicated research area.
Jackson is home to a variety of tree species — hemlock, madrone, tanoaks, and of course, the famed coast redwood. The conflict between loggers and conservationists over the management of this land and of redwoods on the North Coast dates back, most notably, to the 1990s, to Redwood Summer, when droves of activist came from all over the country to try and stop logging in Mendocino and Humboldt counties. Then, the activists’ attempts to stop logging were largely unsuccessful, but they brought national attention to the region’s redwoods. Since that time, the tension between loggers and conservationists has been a steady, underlying part of life on the Mendocino Coast, with conflict boiling over periodically due to new timber harvest plans, issues with endangered species, or the like.
So Cal Fire is used to pushback on their logging projects.
“At times people don’t like management in the forest for various reasons,” said Mike Powers, forest manager at Jackson Demonstration. “Most people have their own special interests on various corners of the property. We work through those issues and try to address those concerns, but we’re obligated to follow the forest management plan.”
That management plan is centered around sustainable forestry research, and according to one forester, the work done at Jackson is unique.
“Frankly, they’re the only public forest that does redwood research and redwood management and silviculture management,” said Mike Jones, the University of California Agriculture and Natural Resources Extension forestry advisor for Lake, Sonoma, and Mendocino County. “It’s a demonstration forest. They do work there,” continued Jones, who serves on the Jackson Demonstration State Forest advisory board.
Jones went on to say that the research in Jackson, especially that which involves redwoods, answers important questions about, among other things, different methods of management, forest health, and microclimates. “Any time you enter a forest and do management, it doesn’t matter if it is a tried and true practice or something brand new,” said Jones. “Effects on particular stands are different. There will be some lessons learned from these particular harvests.”
When the group of locals who now calls themselves the Trail Stewards started catching wind of the planned timber harvests, they were largely concerned about access to recreation in the area, hoping to protect a small sliver of the forest. But in the haze of smoke from record breaking fires this past summer, their concerns and goals evolved.
Swimmer, the founder of the informal citizens advocacy group, holds the view that in light of the urgency of climate change, the forest, and especially the older trees in it, should be used for carbon sequestration and that the ecosystem should be left alone.
“We had this insane hot summer and all these fires and a number of us started thinking more about climate change and why should we stop small why shouldn’t we advocate for a much larger area to be preserved.”
Now they’re working with a variety of nonprofits, former Cal Fire leadership, and having discussions with local politicians about re-writing the Jackson Demonstration State Forest management plan to include binding language that protects a significant portion of the forest from logging.
An ancient tree living in modern society
Surely, one of the reasons redwood trees in particular have been the subject of so much controversy over the years is because of their awe-inspiring nature. Redwoods are the tallest trees on earth. They can stretch 300 feet into the sky and live thousands of years. The trees are a mega-species, like dinosaurs or mammoths, and they date back to before those creatures walked the earth. The direct ancestors of redwoods first appeared on planet earth around 240 million years ago.
Conservationists, scientists, and foresters have always prized redwoods for the ecosystem services they provide — habitat for a plethora of species, including endangered and threatened ones, flood control, filtration of the air, among other things. But in the era of climate change, as the planet’s temperature continues to spike upwards with disastrous consequences, a different beneficial feature of redwoods has gained the spotlight.
Redwood trees’ immensity and longevity allows their ecosystem to absorb more planet warming carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere than almost any other in the world, making them an extremely valuable resource in reducing the impacts of climate change.
A 2016 study published by the University of Washington and Humboldt State University scientists claims redwood forests store approximately 1,083 metric tons of carbon dioxide per acre. That could offset the carbon emissions of 234 passenger vehicles driven over a year or almost three million pounds of coal burned in a year, according to the Environmental Protection Agencies (EPA) carbon calculator. So the 20,000 acres that Mendocino Trail Stewards wants to turn into a reserve could in theory offset the equivalent of a huge number of passenger vehicles.
The Trail Stewards think that the reserve they have in mind could help the global fight against climate change and contribute to Governor Gavin Newsom’s plan to allocate 30% of California’s land to carbon sequestration and ecosystem protection by 2030.
The Stewards are especially focused on protecting older, larger trees which both currently hold and continually sequester more carbon than younger, smaller ones.
“The bigger the tree, the more carbon it is holding,” said Will Russell, a professor of Environmental Science at San Jose State University who studies forest restoration. Russell explained that for the first 800 to 1000 years of a redwoods life, it increases the amount of carbon it sucks in from the atmosphere each year. So, up to that point, each year the redwood gets older, it also does more to mitigate climate change. After that point, the amount of carbon the tree sequesters starts to flatten out. “For example, a 1500 year old redwood might pull in a little bit less [per year] than a 500 year old redwood,” Russell said.
“In Jackson, where some of the trees are around 80 years old, those trees are holding and pulling a lot more carbon compared to a younger tree and they will continue to pull in more for centuries,” said Russell. “As soon as you cut a forest you’re immediately reducing the carbon and the overall growth rate because a newly planted tree can’t sequester as much as an older tree.”
Redwood trees and forests don’t only sequester an enormous amount of carbon. They are home to mountain lions, bears, the threatened marbled murrelet, and the endangered northern spotted owl, among other creatures. Redwood ecosystems also have a variety of impressive characteristics — resistance to forest fire and decay, and an intricate, intertwined root system that can connect hundreds of trees that rely on and support each other. But as most know, these same unique qualities, largely their resistance to fire and decay, are what make them such a valuable tree to harvest. According to Powers, wholesale redwood is worth $350 to $900 per thousand board feet of wood. For comparison, Douglas fir is worth $40 to $100 per thousand board feet.
Generally, trees have to reach a certain size to be sold on the market, but Powers said that most of the trees that Cal Fire plans to cut in the upcoming timber harvest plans are merchantable. Although he couldn’t say exactly how much the planned timber harvests would bring in, he noted that the forest usually makes between $5 and $10 million per year from timber harvests. That money that goes to, among other things, staff salary, forest maintenance, the creation of fuel breaks and future research and harvests.
This is where the tension over redwoods really arises. The trees are so unique, so limited in quantity, and valuable in such a wide variety of ways that they are a constant point of controversy.
“Anytime you’re talking about forest management in California, people have an opinion,” said John Andersen, who serves on the Jackson Demonstration State Forest Advisory Group and is the director of forest policy at Mendocino Redwood Company and Humboldt Redwood Company.
But this conflict doesn’t only come to a head over redwoods and it doesn’t only exist in California. The conflict over how to manage natural resources — how to balance the value of the ecosystem services they provide and the money that can be pulled out of them, transcends time and space. Similar conflicts are taking place in the Amazon rainforest, over how to use the Everglades in Florida, and for the right to extract oil in Texas or protect the land the oil sits under. The list could go on almost forever.
Jackson Demonstration was chartered with the intent of creating a balance between long term sustainability and economic value. According to a 1985 article published in the Journal of Forestry, a University of California professor, Dr. Emmanuel Fritz, lobbied for the state to acquire land where they could demonstrate logging without over-harvesting, bring back productive timberlands, and secure stable employment in the industry. Eventually, his appeal led to the creation of Jackson Demonstration State Forest.
But members of the Mendocino Trail Stewards say that times have changed since the forest was first created back in the middle of the last century, and that the definition of sustainability on which the forest was established isn’t appropriate for the time we live in.
“The majority of public wildlands in the North Coast region of California are set aside as reserves and parks to preserve rare ecosystems and wild areas. Demonstration State Forests, by contrast, are public lands that by legislative mandate have a unique and distinctly different purpose from parks and wilderness areas,” reads the 2016 Jackson Demonstration State Forest management plan. “Demonstration State Forests are mandated to conduct research, demonstration, and education on sustainable forestry practices using active forest management, including periodic timber harvests. Management of the Demonstration State forests is required to address values relating to recreation, watershed, wildlife, range and forage, fisheries, and aesthetic enjoyment.”
There is no doubt that the projects that Cal Fire has lined up for the west side of Jackson are aligned with their mandate and management plan. The plan dictates that research and demonstration projects will include the growth and cultivation of trees, logging methods, economics, hydrology, protection, and recreation, all while aligning with state and national environmental law and regulation such as the endangered species and clean water acts.
Julia Rhodes, a forester who wrote the Mitchell Creek timber harvest plan, which would log around 550 acres south of Hare Creek, echoed Powers’ statement. “We’re designated for timber production for research and demonstration,” she said. “When the property was sold to the state we had a certain set of criteria that were part of that transaction as part of the deal. Our mandate is for timber production and other activities that go hand in hand with that.”
But Swimmer doesn’t want logging to happen in the western portion of the forest at all. “Right at the start of the  management plan it says that demonstration forests are commercial timber lands and that does not actually work with recreation and tourism,” Swimmer said.
The Stewards aim to incorporate binding language into the plan and move the focus of the forest’s management plan away from timber harvesting and towards recreation and research that does not include logging. “We want them to follow the recommendations word for word they have set forth in your 2016 management plan. We want them to find a different way to pay for the state forest system that doesn’t involve entering the second growth forests in Jackson. We want them to follow the most up to date science related to wildfires and timber harvests,” said Swimmer.
Swimmer voiced his opinion that the forests can manage themselves without heavy human intervention — that trucks and chainsaws and logging roads aren’t necessary for healthy forest growth. “Cal Fire is operating on the type of science that says we need to keep coming in and pulling out small trees. But the smaller trees that they cut start to die anyway as they get shaded out.”
Of course, the fact that the science is unsettled bolsters the official purpose of the Jackson Demonstration Forest, as a place for foresters to continue research. Studies on organisms that live thousands of years are tough to complete in a human lifespan, different scientists have come to different conclusions, and Native peoples have their own practices that were used to traditionally maintain different ecosystems.
There is some science that supports Swimmers view that no management at all may be the best way to support healthy redwood forests. “The results of this study indicate that natural recovery is an effective technique for the restoration of coast redwood forests,” write the authors of Restoration of Coast Redwood (Sequoia sempervirens) Forests through Natural Recovery in a 2014 study published in the peer reviewed publication, the Open Journal of Forestry. The study concludes that leaving redwood forests alone can be a successful management tactic.
The authors go on to explain their findings that redwood trees, especially in second growth forests, which have only been cut once, naturally thin themselves out when left alone. They actually came to the conclusion that thinning them through active management can be detrimental to redwood forests.
Redwoods have a unique stress response of producing new shoots that eventually sprout into trees, when they are faced with fire, ax, or another threat to their lives. The study found that thinning can decrease this natural re-sprout. “The arboreal aspects of coast redwood forests appear to be remarkably resilient following a single logging event, and recover rapidly in the absence of active restoration techniques.”
But this view is not a consensus in the scientific community. A study published in the peer reviewed journal, Forests, found that active management is critical to moving redwood forest towards old growth structure, where the trees are spaced far from each other and grow big and tall.
“Restoration is needed to direct the developmental trajectory of some previously harvested stands towards old forest structures to increase the total amount of old forest, connectivity between old forests, and the overall resiliency of these redwood ecosystems,” the authors wrote in Regeneration Dynamics of Coast Redwood, a Sprouting Conifer Species: A Review with Implications for Management and Restoration, 2017. They went on to say, “Thinning of sprouts can accelerate individual tree growth, providing an effective restoration strategy to accelerate formation of large trees and old forest structures or increase stand growth for timber production.”
The question of how to manage redwood forests has long been debated and will likely be debated far into the future.
Although the Mendocino Trail Stewards started off largely concerned about access and recreation to the forest, they are now looking at a much bigger question — what forests are worth and what sustainable management means in 2021 for the North Coast.