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Dispute simmers over north state ‘demonstration forest’

A 77-inch diameter redwood, old-growth by almost any criteria, is marked to be cut to just 80 inches tall, just off the EZN mountain biking trail in the town of Mendocino. (Photo: Samuel Goldberger, by permission)

Driving the 25-mile, winding pass known as California Highway 20, you could be excused for missing the weather-worn, wooden sign welcoming you into — and through — Jackson Demonstration State Forest.

After all, the towering redwood trees dappling the sunlight over the road and the misty fog that clings to every curve is what most drivers are there for, as they head toward the craggy cliffs of the Mendocino coastline.

The California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, or Cal Fire, operates nine Demonstration State Forests in the state, totaling around 72,000 acres.

JDSF — or just “Jackson,” as it is known locally — extends for a staggering 48,000 acres beyond that stretch of road. Nestled between the small mountain town of Willits and the coastal city of Fort Bragg, it is home to innumerable second-growth and old-growth redwoods, rare species of animals and birds, several dozen campsites, waterfalls and mossy paths to hike, cycle, ride and motor through.

But JDSF is also what’s known as a working forest, and despite the reputation it has among locals as a haven of natural wonders, it needs to earn its keep.

State forestry officials say it is doing just that, but the continued prospect of harvesting old-growth redwoods — among other things — has aroused opposition from environmentalists, who want a portion of JDSF protected for hikers and visitors.

The California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, or Cal Fire, operates nine Demonstration State Forests in the state, totaling around 72,000 acres. At 48,652 acres, JDSF alone makes up approximately two-thirds of that.

According to Cal Fire’s website, the state’s demonstration forests grow approximately 75 million board feet of timber annually and harvest an average of 20 million board feet each year — enough to build 12,500 single-family homes.

Cal Fire recently announced there will be six new timber harvest plans (THPs) on more than 5,000 acres in JDSF over the next seven years. Revenue from these harvests funds the management of the state forests. There have already been 12 THPs in the last four years, and the next six would constitute the largest harvests, by far.

One of the most vocal opponents is Chad Swimmer, the president and a founder of the Mendocino Trail Stewards.

But opponents contend the revenue also pays for Cal Fire’s other activities — such as fighting wildfires like the Oak Fire, an 1,100-acre wildfire which came dangerously close to Willits and JDSF in September 2020 — and that money isn’t necessarily set aside for the sustainable, ecological management of the forest, much less the management of its public amenities. They seek legislation to resolve the issue.

One of the most vocal opponents is Chad Swimmer, the president and a founder of the Mendocino Trail Stewards. The Stewards began in 2019 with the intent of establishing a publicly-operated group that would assist Cal Fire in maintaining the hiking paths and other tourist-attractive locations in JDSF, but have increasingly felt that Cal Fire has depended on their assistance without providing its support.

So on Jan. 1, the Stewards announced its intent to turn the western third of JDSF into a redwood forest reserve. On its website, the Stewards wrote they were “initiating a campaign to pass legislation to create an approximately 20,000 acre Redwood Forest Reserve with a mandate for non-motorized recreation, carbon sequestration and climate change mitigation science.”

The Stewards now need to find a statehouse sponsor, and Swimmer said they will try to gain the support of state Sen. Mike McGuire, D-Healdsburg; Mendocino County 5th District Supervisor Ted Williams, or Assemblymember Jim Wood, D-Santa Rosa. The districts of McGuire and Wood include much of California’s northwest coast to the Oregon line. There was no immediate word on whether they would author legislation.

“We are behind on planning and got stuck having to make hard decisions.” — Mike Powers

“This movement may come as a surprise to some, but we did not just appear out of nowhere,” Swimmer wrote in a statement at www.mendocinotrailstewards.com. “We are standing on the shoulders of ‘The Campaign to Restore Jackson State’ of 20 years ago, which shut down logging entirely in this state forest from 2001 to 2008.”

A small brown sign is all that gives visitors notice of entering into — and exiting out of — the 48,000-acre Jackson Demonstration State Forest through which Highway 20 runs. (Photo: Robin Epley.)

“People don’t know that such a beautiful forest can be cut down,” Swimmer said. “The only people who call it a working forest are the people who work it. Everyone else just calls it a forest.”

Among the Stewards’  biggest concerns is the speed at which the harvest plans are being pushed through. The group also asserts that the relevant Cal Fire meetings were closed sessions, in violation of the Brown Act and the Bagley-Keene open meeting laws. The public was neither made aware of the timber harvest plans, nor had the chance to offer comment on them, assertions that Cal Fire disputes.

“There’s a lot going on in these 48,000 acres,” said Mike Powers, forest manager of JDSF. “(What the Stewards want) is in line with creating an area that would be similar to a state park. That’s frankly very different to what we do as a state forest.”

Tourism revenue generated $441.7 million for the county of Mendocino, much of that coming from towns and cities on its’ coastline.

JDSF was established in 1949, after the railroad companies left the Mendocino coast, and the logging industry went with them. The Stewards contend that Cal Fire has not updated its harvesting policies in the decades since.

“No one even said the phrase ‘sustainable forestry’ in 1949,” Swimmer said.

But Powers said the forest is tightly managed, and the new harvest plans were carefully organized so as to reduce ecological impact to any one concentrated area. The fact that six new harvest plans were announced at one time shouldn’t be construed as an attempt to sneak something under the radar, he argued, but rather that “most of the staff were gone (last summer) and involved with fire responsibilities, to a big degree.”

“We are behind on planning and got stuck having to make hard decisions,” Powers said.

Adding further fuel to their fire, the Stewards have also cited ecological research proving that wildfires spread faster in recently logged areas, where low brush and invasive species cover the ground. The group has taken out ads in local papers, publicly mourning the loss of tourist-friendly paths and opportunities in the forest — a business sector from which much of the coast now makes its living — and asking locals to sign a petition against the harvest plans.

“The future of our county is not in timber, the future of our county is in tourism.” — Chad Swimmer

In 2017, the most recent year for which data is available, tourism revenue generated $441.7 million for the county of Mendocino, much of that coming from towns and cities on its’ coastline like Mendocino, Fort Bragg and Caspar, and the natural attractions dotted along those towns like Jughandle, Mackerricher, Van Damme and Russian Gulch state parks.

The next two timber harvests planned for 2021 are in the Jughandle and Caspar areas, covering hundreds of acres and crisscrossing popular hiking, riding and biking trails.

“It’s hard for people to get information from Cal Fire,” Swimmer said. “People drive up here from the city for a week of mountain biking and find the trail is closed. The future of our county is not in timber, the future of our county is in tourism.”

So far, the Stewards have not found a statehouse sponsor for their bill, but they have begun gathering signatures for a petition to stop the first two timber harvests, slated to begin later this year.

Ultimately, Swimmer says, win or lose, their goal is “change what a demonstration forest is.”

“I would like it to be a forest that demonstrates climate change mitigation, carbon sequestration and low-impact recreation,” he said. “The state is very rich and the amount of money involved here is very small. They don’t need to log Jackson to make money from it.”


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