CASPAR CA, 6/16/21 — On a sunny Tuesday afternoon in Caspar, a group of prominent local activists waited at the Caspar entrance to Jackson Demonstration State Forest, preparing to take Mendocino County supervisors Dan Gjerde and Ted Williams on a tour of the the JDSF. But minutes before the forest walk was set to begin, the activists, from a coalition of environmental groups led by the Mendocino Trail Stewards pulled out — after finding out that Cal Fire representatives had also been invited by Gjerde.
The failure of the tour shows how far the two sides are apart in the realms of trust and communication as the summer temperatures and the logging controversy heat up.
Logging under approved timber harvest plans is now underway in Jackson Demonstration State Forest, which is managed by Cal Fire, with trees being cut down along Road 500 on Tuesday, although not in the area of the doomed tour. But (as previous reporting which can be found here show) the plan has become a major flashpoint in the decades-long fight over logging on the North Coast, a fight now informed by the realities of climate change and wildfire.
Local activists say the biggest trees, which sequester an inordinate amount of carbon out of the atmosphere, are too important to log. For their part Cal Fire officials (more formally called the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection) say that the logging is necessary for maintenance, to fund the forest, and that anyhow the forest is ultimately a “demonstration forest” set up for the very purpose of demonstrating logging practices.
Over the past months and weeks some activists have pushed confrontation with the loggers, locking themselves together at road entrances, staging tree sits, and blocking roads — while others, especially a coalition of conservation groups led by the Mendocino Trail Stewards, have worked through official channels and are seeking legislative change.
That’s what the Stewards hoped to do on Tuesday with the two county supervisors they had invited to tour with them. Although supervisors have no official authority over the timber plans, the hope was that they could attempt to intercede on behalf of their constituents and take a stance against logging. The forest is found within the boundaries of the districts represented by Gjerde and Williams (as well as a western sliver of Supervisor John Haschak’s district who was not present), with most of the 48,000 plus acres found in Gjerde’s Fourth Supervisorial District.
On Tuesday, three members of the Mendocino Trail Stewards, President Chad Swimmer, Marie Jones and climate scientist John P. O’Brien, along with Michelle McMilllan, who is a media representative for the Mama Tree Network (another environmental group part of a coalition opposing logging), left when they learned Cal Fire would be coming along on their tour. Gjerde eventually took the tour with the Cal Fire group and this reporter. Williams, who had been eager to tour the woods, also left, after hearing activists’ concerns.
Cal Fire’s State Forests Program Manager Kevin Conway, JDSF forester Lynn Webb and forest aide Tori Norville were there at the invitation of Gjerde. The nine people met in a circle along the gravel road at the end of Road 409 in Caspar and discussed the matter before the activists walked away.
Nearby the road are slash piles and some unattractive remnants of previous logging that Cal Fire representatives had planned to talk about on the tour, until objections to the event came forward, voiced by Jones at the outset of the group meeting. Swimmer said he had chosen the location because it is near housing and because of the shock value of the recent logging devastation to anyone who wanders in from Road 409. Swimmer heard from Gjerde just minutes before the tour that Gjerde had invited Cal Fire. He then told other members of the Stewards that Cal Fire had been invited. That didn’t sit well with any of the Stewards.
“We have a big coalition. And this meeting, with Cal Fire being part of it, was sprung on us literally less than 10 minutes ago. We haven’t talked with our coalition about meeting with you. They are not at the table,” Marie Jones said.
Jones is executive director of the non-profit Jughandle Creek Farm and Nature Center, which is one of the key facilities for teaching about nature on the Coast, and is a member of the Mendocino County Planning Commission but did not represent those organizations at the impromptu meeting but came as a member of the Mendocino Trail Stewards.
“It feels very sprung on us. We had a different agenda for today. And so we would like to respectfully ask Cal Fire to not participate in this meeting, and instead have a meeting in a month, where we can all sit down at a table and have a real dialogue which is what we have been asking for,” Jones said.
The Stewards had invited Willliams and Gjerde and Gjerde had then invited Cal Fire, unknown to the Stewards Gjerde told the group that he had invited Cal Fire so he could get the whole picture. He had hoped the tour would be the mechanism to do just that.
“They are the people the state has hired to manage this property. I want to hear from them. If there’s an accusation made about their management, I would like to hear their explanation,” Gjerde said.
Swimmer, who has led the efforts of the coalition, questioned Gjerde as the group discussed the tour on Tuesday as to why he had not invited the coalition when the supervisor took a previous tour with Cal Fire. Gjerde said he had been trying to get a meeting going between the activists and Cal Fire for some time and remained dedicated to that goal.
Williams suggested two tours to the group in an effort to break the deadlock.
“What if we do a one hour tour and leave Cal Fire here and come back and take a tour with them?” asked Williams of the assembled group.
Swimmer said his answer to tours on this day was no. He explained that the time everyone had budgeted away from work had run out and that doing split tours could only create confusion and spin.
“Our coalition has really strongly agreed…that we are not going to meet Cal Fire in any situation without prior discussion amongst our coalition,” said Swimmer.
“We cannot go on a walk with them today. I appreciate that people drove all the way from Sacramento and if you have time to kill I really urge you to go to the Caspar 500 where the timber operators are falling trees in front of recreationalists not activists,” said McMillan of the Mama Tree Network.
She referred to the active timber harvest area at the Caspar kiosk at Road 500. There activists have been attempting to block logging, so far unsuccessfully. On Tuesday, several activists reported in interviews that trees were being cut in the Road 500 area despite the presence of hikers and activists in the forest.
Gjerde stuck with the idea that the group should take a tour together.
“I’m happy to go on a tour with [the Trail Stewards group] but I want Jackson Forest staff there because I want to hear what they have to say, whether it’s during the tour, or even after,” said the Fourth District supe.
Jones said the meeting in which the coalition of opponents to the timber harvest could meet with Cal Fire could happen at Jughandle Creek Farm’s meeting room.
“If you want to have a sit down meeting with the coalition, it needs to be in a room with everybody there, and that’s not what this is. I know how these walks happen. You end up with three different conversations that are happening at the same time. There is no way to record it , and no one is hearing what the other people are saying. And so you don’t end up with policy, you end up with mismash,” said Jones.
Williams asked Jones if there was anything that could be done to save the tour.
“I don’t think there’s anything we can do at this point, you know, Chad is the person who started this, and for us to meet without him, it would be completely unfair,” said Jones.
“You know I understand Dan that you want both sides, but I think it’s really important to understand that we have been trying to have a meeting with them for a long time,” said Jones.
“And to have these wonderful people, just dropped on us. It’s just not very fair, because you guys [Cal Fire] haven’t wanted to meet with us, you haven’t wanted to sit down with us this whole time. We’ve been asking for a mediated dialogue for over a year,” said Jones.
The discussion was interrupted several times by forest users. A large family group approached Cal Fire staff with questions and were helped by Webb. Big trucks rushed by as did bicyclists enjoying the terrain, if perplexed by the serious discussion underway on a sunny June Tuesday.
When the five person tour finally happened, it showed ugly logging remnants, the ground covered with cut wood from 2018 and a big slash pile of wood left behind. Cal Fire representatives engaged in a dialogue with Gjerde for more than a half hour while the group walked through what was left of the forest from the previous logging.
“We only get so many burn days per year and we prioritized other piles over this for this year,” said Webb. Webb explained that JDSF uses several different logging practices at the same time during a timber harvest to learn how standard practices produce different outcomes from newer methodologies.
Next came a big open field that looked like a forest several years after an aerial bombing. Trees laid flat on the ground. Old stumps were high points but some straight, towering giants remained in the wide open area.
Webb called what looked like clearcut a “variable retention unit” because it did include a super thin scattering of very large trees including a towering Western Hemlock in the middle. “Hopefully we will get some hemlock seedlings,” Webb said. The dense forest has been partially replanted in redwoods, Webb said. Thick wood covers the ground, making walking very difficult and the ground itself invisible in some places.
Gjerde and this reporter wondered about all the wood on the ground
“Our idea is that the wood decays faster on the ground. It’s going to have a higher moisture content if it is on the ground and this is a first step in reducing the fuel loads and risk,” said Webb
She pointed out that onerous invasive species such as pampas grass (Jubata grass) had not taken hold, which is part of the reason for leaving the slash on the ground. Gjerde photographed some beautiful flowering native iris. Gjerde asked if the messy cut area was indeed an effort to recreate an ancient forest.
“Probably not at this location. Basically we have zoning and this is not in that zone,” said Webb. The impacts on both water quality and water quantity runoff are being evaluated Conway said. He said about 30 percent of the forest is targeted for return to the ancient forest.
Loggers are paid a lower price by the state than they might be by a private owner so that the state can require smaller trees also be cut. At the tour site, the smaller trees now fill the ground while others remain in the slash pile after three years.
The discussion of the tour then turned to a map and the efforts to eliminate a eucalyptus grove that originated from a long gone homesteader in the area. Cal Fire’s Tori Norville said the grove would be shrunk, but not removed. Conway said over many, many years the eucalyptus would be removed.
Many forest owners in Mendocino County, ranging from timber companies to a local tribe to the Redwood Forest Foundation Inc., are paid for sequestering carbon not to cut trees through the state’s cap and trade program. Gjerde and the JDSF contingent thought that the state was not eligible to get money from the state program. The money, however, is paid by industries that create carbon pollution.
“What if we are entering a new period where there is just less rainfall in the redwood region? Does that mean we need fewer trees per acre, does that mean we need a different kind of canopy? Those are questions that seem like they need to be answered through studies,” Gjerde said
“Looking at one big tree we are cutting doesn’t tell the whole story,” Conway said. He said all remaining old JDSF growth groves (estimated at 459 acres among the 48,000 acres) have been set aside and some areas are being managed so that they can become old growth over time.
The JDSF management plan originated more than a decade ago and allowed bigger trees to grow.
“The JAG [Jackson Demonstration State Forest Advisory Group] agreed to a common set of goals, this was something you got Jere Melo [logger and former Fort Bragg mayor] and Vince Taylor [activist] to agree upon, to not cut at age 60 but get them up to 24, 36 inches something like that before you harvest,” Webb said.
“For me it’s disappointing to say growing those big trees means they shouldn’t be harvested when previously we said we would let them get larger before harvesting them,” Webb said.
Activists say the climate has changed and now demands the preservation of those biggest trees as carbon sinks. Although carbon sequestration programs have been called into question for smaller forests, science supports the role of big redwood trees in removing carbon from the atmosphere.
“The Mendocino Trail Stewards are on the record against continued timber harvest on publicly-owned lands in these times of drought and climate emergency. Logging takes substantial amounts of water and is one of the most carbon-intensive activities that humans engage in,” Swimmer said in an email interview
“It is an egregious betrayal of the public trust for our state to be talking about 30×30 and Nature-Based Solutions yet moving forward with these vastly unpopular timer harvest plans. These forests are worth so much more standing. Jackson Demonstration State Forest could demonstrate, with the stroke of the governor’s pen, how we California can live up to the lofty statements of its public servants,” Swimmer said.
The 30 by 30 plan is the push to conserve 30 percent of U.S. lands and waters by the year 2030 that President Joe Biden signed onto in January 2021. California had joined the 30×30 movement in October 2020
*An earlier version of this story said that JDSF is owned directly by Cal Fire, it is instead managed by the agency.