FORT BRAGG, 11/28/23 — The Jackson Demonstration State Forest Advisory Council (JAG) got a lot done at its Nov. 15 meeting, but more questions were raised than answered during seven hours of work that included two votes and a forest tour.
George Hollister, chairman of the JAG, kept the November meeting moving along with the help of new facilitator Emily Smith and new Mendocino Unit Chief Brandon Gunn. As a result, all three items postponed from the September JAG meeting came to fruition in November. A timber harvest plan and a Scope of Work that sets the stage for a new management plan were both approved. Also accomplished was a tour of a new harvest plan dependent upon fire. Each of those agenda items were overwhelmed by protests and poor meeting management in September.
Rules were laid down at the start of the November meeting. People had to come to the front to offer timed comments, and the meeting was recorded on video. Agenda items were also timed. It helped that this audience was a small fraction of the number of attendees at the last meeting. Yet there was still drama, and many in the audience made the same point: that the JAG and Cal Fire still have everything backwards.
Speakers told the JAG directors that the so-called “New Vision” harvest plans need to wait until the issues surrounding how the demonstration forest is managed are ironed out. For months, plans have been in place in which Cal Fire and tribal representatives would co-manage the forest, but so far the process is muddled and unclear who has a say and how co-management works. Debate often centered on process: co-management with local tribal governments is through a Tribal Advisory Council, which is not a public agency and not required to meet in public. How can those meetings be integrated with the JAG, which in itself is only an advisory body to Cal Fire?
At the meeting, Brandon Gunn, of Laytonville, was introduced as the new Mendocino Unit Chief of Cal Fire. He had been the deputy chief until Chief Luke Kendall retired, effective after the meeting. The affable Gunn talked about the importance of fire prevention in the area, which had been ravaged by wildfires for several summers in a row. Among his other jobs, Gunn is supposed to implement the Cal Fire “New Vision,” which includes co-management.
In an interview after the meeting he acknowledged that challenge. He said he could tell from the way people encouraged him about his promotion.
“Congratulations?” one person said.
Gunn said he retorted, “Hey, this is my day to enjoy. There is not supposed to be a question mark at the end.”
What can the JAG control?
Adding to the confusion of how co-management might work is that the JAG directors have no real authority. Decisions are made by the California Board of Forestry or handed down through the California Natural Resources Agency. The Tribal Advisory Council was formed by Cal Fire, who contacted people from local tribal governments associated with the boundaries of JDSF. Co-management has been pushed by Gov. Gavin Newsom through the Resources Agency. And the JAG’s role is defined by the Board of Forestry which communicates through Cal Fire.
Edith Hannigan, executive officer of the California Board of Forestry, was in the audience as a spectator. But she came up to the front and took charge twice. Once was when protester Theresa Morales stopped the meeting when she demanded the public be allowed to speak and refused to go back to her seat for about five minutes. Morales was upset because she wanted to talk about a plan advanced by JAG member Amy Wynn. Wynn had suggested adding another Native American representative to increase communication about what might be going on behind the scenes between the JAG and the Tribal Advisory Council. Others in the audience wanted to talk about Wynn’s proposal, which was not on the agenda.
Hannigan assured Morales that public comment is part of each item on the agenda and explained that the conduct of the meeting was governed by state law and those who object should contact their state legislators.
Morales continued to stand between the eight JAG members and the audience, raising concerns about secrecy and co-management.
“It is very frustrating. I understand,” Hannigan said, about how the link between managing the forest through the state and the tribes could work as outlined.
Hannigan also got involved at another contentious moment when Wynn had a proposal that included putting local community values into the Scope of Work. Hannigan verbally edited that phrase out of what Wynn suggested for changes. While this may have seemed minor, it addressed a decades-long controversy.
Critics have long maintained that the Board of Forestry considers JDSF a statewide resource, rejecting the idea that people who live in and around the forest have standing to help manage the land. Some believe that’s why the Board of Forestry removed any real power from the JAG a few years after it had been set up as part of an agreement with environmentalists and local timber industry representatives in which environmentalists dropped a lawsuit that had held up logging for nearly a decade.
The forest was shut down with protests in 2021 and 2022. Cal Fire responded with its New Vision, in response to both the input of protesters and orders from Gov. Gavin Newsom for tribal co-management and to do more about climate change, fire prevention and environmental degradation.
Where does the New Vision start?
“There should be no logging in JDSF until a management plan is in place,” asserted David Gurney of Fort Bragg. “Those of us who have watched Cal Fire know how you operate. If a road is needed and a big row of trees is in the way, bam they are gone”
Andy Wellspring, a local teacher who has been one of the leaders of the protests, said Cal Fire came up with the New Vision Scope of Work parameters and harvest plans on its own, despite the fact that they are supposed to be collaborative. He maintained that was a reason to reject the two proposed harvest plans on the agenda until the New Vision is hashed out with public input. Only then can harvest plans (THPs) be launched under a New Vision management plan.
“Did you all get a draft of the New Vision in your packets? he asked the JAG rhetorically. “The public also didn’t have a chance to see it beforehand. No, we hear it for the first time in a timber harvest plan.Then they tell us they took out some 48-inch trees and now will have 46 inches as the maximum size they cut. Okay, well, thanks guys,” Wellspring said.
The changes by Cal Fire on maximum size vary and also exclude trees above a certain size, in some cases.
Wellspring, an active member of the Coalition to Save Jackson State Forest, told the JAG they don’t have to listen to the suggestions of Cal Fire every time and urged them to make their own strong statement and take leadership to resolve confusing issues and unanswered questions.
And in fact, the JAG had a split vote at this meeting, 5-2-1 in favor of one of the two THPs. The JAG, which critics decry as a rubber-stamp body, has never voted down a timber harvest plan proposed by Cal Fire since it was founded in 2008, Kevin Conway of Cal Fire and longtime JAG member and chairman George Hollister confirmed. In the early days of the JAG, when it had real powers, members often disagreed, but they had a mandate to discuss until a consensus was found that all could agree to, Hollister remembers. So as far as anybody now knows, there has never been “no” votes until the minority vote at this last meeting. The JAG found out after it voted that only unanimous votes are accepted for the JAG approving something and now the decision will go to Sacramento.
Group members Amy Wynn and Charlie Schneider voted no and Joanna Nelson abstained. They explained that their objections were not about the specifics of the THP, but about the process. Wynn said she would be voting no because there was no reason to act now, before the New Vision process could be better understood and developed. Because the JAG did not come to a consensus on the vote, this Camp One Harvest Plan now goes to the State Board of Forestry for a final decision, according to the JAG charter, Smith said. The timeline on the project is now unknown.
Coalition to Save Jackson Forest leaders Bill Heil and Anna Marie Stenberg both called that particular harvest plan “benign,” but agreed harvesting needed to wait until tribal input could be understood.
The complications of co-management
While the meeting ran far more smoothly than in September, the hottest point of contention was the same: the unresolved question of how co-management would work between Cal Fire, the JAG and the tribes.The Tribal Advisory Council does not meet in public or have an agenda. It is ostensibly a player in all decisions, but it works behind the scenes. New Unit Chief Gunn has been meeting with the Tribal Advisory Council, and he said it was the Council’s wish not to disclose which tribes were involved or what they are talking about until they have something to release — perhaps. He said he had asked them to disclose more information.
This left critics and at least one JAG director questioning how a new management plan could be constructed partly in public and partly in the dark.
JAG member Joanna Nelson, who supports tribal confidentiality, questioned how the management plan development process will work so that the public and JAG could continue to give input. “Can Cal Fire share with the JAG and the public with whom you work in a government-to-government capacity? For example, do you work with federally recognized tribes, do you work with state recognized tribes? What about unrecognized tribes?”
Cal Fire officials said there were no strict parameters. A letter was sent out during the New Visioning process to about 20 tribes, most of whom did not respond.
Nelson then asked how the two approaches would fit together.
“If those interactions and agreements are a confidential black box, just as they should be, then what does this management plan consist of? What is left over that’s not under those agreements? My question is about what the scope of work we are considering on our agenda entails. There needs to be a co-management scope disclosed.”
Cal Fire’s Gunn and Kevin Conway, the head of the state’s Demonstration Forest Program, discussed these issues, saying the JAG was not the agency to oversee the entire management plan update process, but to provide input into the Scope of Work and the parts of the advisory process.
Gunn was hopeful, but not sure, that the tribes would be putting forward their plans once those were presentable.
“At this point, if you have any concerns about tribal issues, please bring that to me and I will bring that to the tribal Advisory Council. They didn’t want to come forward right now and say exactly who was in the membership or what tribes were involved … I can share that we have been building a strong relationship with the Tribal Advisory Council. We have been in constant communication and collaboration, and we’ve had four meetings and those meetings have been successful and productive.”
Heil, from Coalition to Save Jackson Forest, said it didn’t surprise him that most tribes contacted didn’t respond.
“This stuff about involving the tribes? They have been talking about that for years.. It’s nothing different. The tribes are responding the way they have always responded. You could talk to Edwina or other tribal people about what has gone on over time. Now is the opportunity for the JAG to step forward and do this right.”
He was referring to Edwina Lincoln, a Yuki woman and enrolled member of the Round Valley Indian Tribes. She received the most applause when she asked what work had been done on archeological sites. “Our people are all over the coast here.”
She said if the state was serious this time about co-management, that “a Tribal partnership with JDSF would be the perfect place to start on a new kind of relationship. The state has an opportunity to lead the way and also reach its goal by working with all the local tribes to change the current management model and to change several current [THPs] that demonstrate industrial logging. We envision following a course that demonstrates indigenous land management and restoration. We call this process Cultural Restoration. We can heal the forest and at the same time, we will also be healing the destruction of our tribal communities that took place in the time of our ancestors.”
The Mendocino Voice asked Cal Fire Deputy Chief for Special Operations at JDSF Emily Smith and Hannigan questions related to these statements. Smith’s answers are here:
The JAG voted unanimously in favor of moving forward the Scope of Work, as presented in the board packet. The Scope of Work is designed to set the stage for an updated management plan for JDSF, in order to respond to issues that have become higher priorities such as climate change and tribal co-management, when previously logging was the only priority.
The JAG then adjourned the meeting to take the forest tour that had been canceled at the last meeting. Participants left First Presbyterian Church in Fort Bragg and drove about seven miles west to see the first ever “pyro-silv” site (pyro meaning fire and silv referring to silviculture, which includes harvesting of trees). A caravan followed a dirt road leading to Mendocino and Caspar. Along the road is the Old Mill Farm, a community farm and education resource. Barbara Sochacki of Old Mill Farm joined the tour to hear what the state would be doing.
The Cal Fire contingent of 14 people were joined by a dozen people from the meeting, including several scientists. One man said the science would include taking tree and forest growth measurements before and after a fire and compare those to assumptions now being made about how fire impacts timber and the forest ecosystem.
Kyle Farmer, a local naturalist and farmer and Kirk O’Dwyer, the forester in charge of the plan, explained how fires set before and after the harvest would work. O’Dwyer showed a tree that was hollow at the bottom. The tree also has a burl attached that has a small pool inside about four inches deep. It had been marked in blue in the first round. In the second round, when New Vision principles were followed, black paint was sprayed over the blue, meaning the tree should be saved.
Under the old vision, this would not be a candidate to be saved, as it has no timber value. But its hollow interior and general weakness makes it a “snag” under current management notions.That means wildlife loves it.
“We saw it from the back and it looked like it would be fine to cut. Then we walked around and saw this [pointing to the burl and Hobbit house-like tree hole] and said, ‘We have to save this.’”
Further up the trail was a “fairy circle” of young redwoods around what once was a giant mother tree, a sight familiar to any redwood forest lover.
All but one of the fairy circle trees got marked for cutting, leaving a future giant in place. Large trees sequester the most carbon and have the greatest economic value. Perhaps even more importantly a closely packed nest of trees can make a wildfire much worse, the forestry scientists explained.
The pyro-silv forest plan will be voted on at the next JAG meeting now planned to be in March. The time, date and place for that meeting have not been finalized. An agenda will be issued 10 days prior to the meeting, Cal Fire said.
No official tribal representative appeared among the audience at the November meeting. Nobody spoke from the recreation user community, the main users of the nearly 50,000-acre Jackson Demonstration State Forest, which is the largest of California’s demonstration forests and was established in 1949.