MENDOCINO Co., 11/7/23 — For four hours on Wednesday in Sacramento, California Board of Forestry and Fire Protection (Cal Fire) Chairman J. Keith Gilless and board directors deliberated under changing images of critters and forest scenes from the Jackson Demonstration State Forest (JDSF) playing on an overhead projector. The Save Jackson State Forest Coalition provided the spectacular imagery from their beloved forest in Caspar to show the board what is actually at stake in their decisions about future timber harvests.
Gilless and the rest of the board got harsh criticism on several fronts, including the contradiction between the state’s climate change promise to preserve 30 percent of its land and 30 percent of its ocean from production by 2030 when California is not protecting its own Jackson Demonstration State Forest in Caspar. The state has launched a new vision for its demonstration forests, an effort that has hit resistance in Jackson and the advisory board there called the JAG. Some tribal members expressed strong objections at the state meeting with tribes that remain unidentified. Numerous speakers demanded that the Board of Forestry and Fire Protection come to Caspar, walk in the woods and hold one of its meetings there. Unlike other meetings and protests in recent years, on Wednesday no speakers gave long speeches; demands were made repeatedly to hold a more open process where the public can give input to someone who has the power to make changes.
Kim Rodrigues, who once served alongside Gilless as one of the five members of the Board of Forestry, described a wild scene at the JAG meeting in September. Rodrigues had accepted the challenge to be Cal Fire’s facilitator for the JAG as the state tried to bring back timber harvests after two years of staunch protests by the Save Jackson State Forest Coalition, which pledges to “work to change the mandate of JDSF from industrial logging to Indigenous Land Management that will benefit all Californians.” Rodrigues signed up for a collaborative process and facilitated several meetings, but Cal Fire delivered a rushed business-as-usual approach.
“It really disheartened me. At the September meeting, I went to talk to the JAG about it, and I felt like I was transported back to the timber wars of the 1990s. It was like a mob scene. It was so contentious, and there was nobody really listening to each other. That is despite the fact there is lots of common ground. That common ground really was totally missed.”
“And today you’re hearing from the coalition, but I would urge you to understand that there are other voices out there too. Cal Fire and the board needs to hear from them. And you need to hear from the JAG directly,” Rodrigues said.
September JAG meeting may result in changes at state level
No one wanted to see a repeat of the wild September JAG meeting, at which no agenda item was voted on. The November JAG meeting featured formal meeting protocols and a new cast of characters: Cal Fire’s Emily Smith was named Deputy Chief for Special Projects and assigned to the JDSF. Mendocino Cal Fire Unit Chief Luke Kendall resigned, and Deputy Chief Brandon Gunn was named chief.
At the state forestry board meeting Wednesday, Gilless and Cal Fire Director and Fire Chief Joe Tyler discussed what else needs doing to get the JAG on track. Tyler said he would bring two proposals to the next meeting, one of which would see the JAG reporting to him and the other to the forestry board itself. He mentioned term limits for JAG directors, managing the flow of a JAG meeting, and training in the Brown Act.
“There’s a lot of discussions that will need to come forward and discussion about the JAG charter,” said Tyler.
Rodrigues suggested that a new JAG chair be appointed, a notion supported by coalition member Andy Wellspring during his speech to the board. But the crux of the criticism, stated repeatedly, was that everything should be started over or put on hold until there is tribal and public input on the process and until the state-mandated process of tribal co-management is better defined.
Most of the discussion was about issues raised by Indigenous people, some of whom had not appeared at previous meetings about the forest.
Jason Franklin said he wanted to talk to the board about the difference between Indigenous cultural practice and spirituality and Western economics.
“Those things don’t match, and yet we’re continually asked as Indigenous people to make them work together. We are expected to take on Western economic and governmental practices to protect our spiritual and cultural rights. And that doesn’t work. We’re continually presented with economic or legal terminology that doesn’t fit our life practices. And so in that sense, we don’t have effective communication between tribal organizations, entities and people in general, and the government who has charge over our sacred places,” Franklin said.
The JAG, stripped of real power by the board, isn’t making the grade, he added. “We need an avenue or a person to speak to directly who actually has meaningful authority and voice in these kinds of situations.”
Michael Hunter, once chairman of the Coyote Valley Band of Pomo Indians, did not mention his tribal affiliation in his comment. “It seems weird that an Indigenous man from that area has to keep asking people to stop logging old redwoods in our forest,” he said. “It’s all about the redwoods. I have to assume that you guys haven’t been out there. Because what’s on the documents and what’s being said don’t match my eyes.”
Hunter asked the board to look at images of the forest playing overhead or at pomolandback.com. “If you stopped logging, you no longer need the roads, which means you’ll stop damaging our waterways,” he said. “You stop building the roads. You stop spraying the pesticides. You stop spraying all these pesticides to keep the brush back from the roads. That means when you have a heavy rain, those pesticides won’t run into your rivers like it did last year. Makes sense? If you don’t log that doesn’t happen, and you will have redwoods that do get older and become older trees. Simple.”
Hunter said he could understand after attending the meeting more of what the board was trying to do. Efforts discussed included working with countries around the globe to better understand wildfire prevention, wildlife health, efforts to reduce erosion and using prescribed burning to create healthier forests, a practice used by Indigenous peoples across the world.
“As I sit here and you guys are excited about the things you were funding and the people getting involved, but at the cost of our redwoods. I’m not saying you’re doing bad work,” Hunter said. “I’m just saying you’re using my redwoods, my homeland. You are extracting my resources, the redwoods from our state forests and Mendocino County to fund these things. Every time you do that, you have to cut down redwoods.“
Edwina Lincoln, whose tribe is part of the Round Valley Indian Tribes, said she and many indigenous people are trying to think seven generations into the future. “How can we continue to go and do all this damage to the land, when the land is what is going to take care of us?”
The International Indian Treaty Council’s California Tribal and Community Liaison Morning Star Gali provided a list of treaties and laws she said the Board of Forestry may be violating, especially by having secret negotiations with two tribes. (Cal Fire has indicated there were at least three tribes but has not identified them.) She asked the board to refer to AB 52, which requires public agencies to consult with tribes during public processes that require environmental review.
“Indigenous peoples possess collective rights which are indispensable for their existence,” Gali said. “As elder Edwina Lincoln just shared…in terms of the AB 52 consultation there is a violation of that, where only two tribes are participating out of the 19 tribes that you are mandated to consult with.” She went on to list other violations and said there were 45 articles within the AB 52 declaration.
“Please look it up and read it and be familiar with it as you are engaging in consultation with Indigenous peoples.”
Gali is a member of the Ajumawi band of Pit River Tribe. AB 52 consultation is explained here.
None of the criticism directed at Cal Fire’s management process seemed to daunt Gilless. He praised the spirited input about JDSF and said the struggle in Caspar is a visible effort in a very difficult issue that is happening with natural resources all over the country — how to go back and forward at the same time in working with Indigenous peoples and tribes.
Also brought up was an alleged conflict of interest involving JAG member John Anderson, whose company, Mendocino Redwood Company, has been suing CalFire over the disruptions caused by the protesters. That lawsuit went unnoticed until this reporter wrote about it. The Save Jackson coalition said the fact that the suit had existed for a year while Anderson served on the JAG was a conflict. Anderson did not attend the last meeting, and there has been no announcement other than in a press release by the coalition last month.
Nobody spoke in favor of logging or about recreational issues at the meeting, either by Zoom or in person. A half dozen people from Mendocino County made the four-hour trip to Sacramento to attend the meeting, which started at 9 a.m. and ended before 2 p.m.
There were other issues covered during the meeting, but most of the time was devoted to JDSF. At the meeting, Chief Tyler gave a run-down of some of the issues the board faces. The board oversees Cal Fire’s administration of all timber harvest plans (THPs), most of which occur on private lands, both by landowners and timber companies. Tyler said when timber harvest plans get backed-up, as happened during the pandemic, it can become a critical issue for landowners. He told the board he was closely monitoring to make sure the THPs weren’t getting backed up needlessly by Cal Fire.
“This is so you know I’m keeping a pretty close eye on it,” Tyler said.
He also noted that the shortage of qualified people to do timber harvests is getting better, after recent graduates from Shasta College’s program entered the field. But a problem he identified for the board is that the number of women in Cal Fire stands at just 5.1 percent. “That is actually down by half a percent,” he said. “And so that tells me our efforts that we’ve been taking thus far are not efficient or sufficient and we will ramp those up even more. “
After yet another speaker demanded that the Board of Forestry hold a meeting in Caspar and walk through the forest itself, Gilless said that should be possible if the meetings were rearranged and budgets shuffled a bit. The board has met in other remote locations such as Quincy. But, he said, that decision will be up to somebody else, not him. Earlier, he had dropped a bomb, revealing this would likely be his last meeting after ten years as chair. He had told Governor Gavin Newsom and Chief Tyler but few others. He will still be chair in January only if the governor’s new appointee has not been seated.
Gilless also recently retired from UC Berkeley, where he spent his career as a professor and leader of a graduate program for environmental science. He said the contention, confusion and passion the JAG, Cal Fire, local tribes and the Caspar community are experiencing is indicative of a very difficult and opaque process of tribal reconciliation happening throughout society.
He said he agreed to do one last job for UC Berkeley: to lead the search for a new professor of traditional environmental knowledge who would straddle the environmental science and the ethnic studies departments.
He saw it as one of the most challenging jobs imaginable, and yet they found six highly qualified and enthusiastic candidates willing and able to take on the challenge, which stoked the old professor’s optimistic spirit about the potential for a new generation to solve this problem. “This will not be something that happens all at once, it will not ever be Athena emerging from the forehead of Zeus fully formed,” he said. “It’s going to be a bumpy journey. I believe that the board will be a good partner with Cal Fire and other agencies as they try to make good on our state’s commitment to finding what co-management is and how to implement it. Small successes early on are lovely to show us this really is a path we could walk down. So I’m hopeful for that.”