Funding for Usal Redwood Forest Conservation Easement Stalled, Again

April, 2011
About the Usal Forest
The Usal Redwood Forest Conservation Easement encompasses more than 50,000 acres of forestland stretching along the coastal mountains from south of Leggett, along U.S. 101 to north of Piercy. The easement would create a contiguous protected area from Standish Hickey State Recreation Area to the InterTribal Sinkyone Wilderness Council and Sinkyone Wilderness State Park on the coast.

RFFI officials say the sale of the easement to conservation groups would allow for the surrender of all development rights on the property and keep it as a single, intact forest parcel in perpetuity. Otherwise, the land parcel may have to be sold, which  would open it up to partitioning and subdivision.

Though legally owned as private land, RFFI would manage the land as a working community forest. This would allow for recreational uses as well as sustainable timber harvesting and traditional gathering practices for local tribes.  The creeks and rivers also refuges for Coho salmon and Steelhead trout.

One of the goals for the easement would be to establish access points along the 101 corridor with trailheads leading through the forest to the beach. Hiking, kayaking and packing tours are all possibilities being discussed for the property.

Heavy logging has greatly depleted the former timberlands, which once belonged to Hawthorne Timber Company, but restoration–to the tune of half-a-million dollars annually–is already underway.
Projects include road removal, watershed enhancement and forest management to restore forest health and timber production.

The arboreal composition is currently about 45 percent tanoak, a less commercially viable species than redwood or Douglas-fir.

 

The Redwood Forest Foundation Inc. (RFFI), a non-profit community benefit organization, is still struggling to get Wildlife Conservation Board (WCB) funding for a conservation easement on the Usal Forest in Mendocino County, three years after a quick and easy sale was supposed to be over. The proposed easement would be purchased by The Conservation Fund with major funding from the Wildlife Conservation Board.

Despite unanimous support from both Humboldt and Mendocino Counties’ Boards of Supervisors, Assemblyman Wes Chesbro, Congressman Mike Thompson, several local cities and environmental groups, the easement has stalled under pressure from its single major opponent, the Mendocino Redwood Company (MRC).

MRC, a Forestry Stewardship Council certified harvester, has been very vocal in its opposition to the project, sending letters to the WCB and lobbying in Sacramento.

Still, with so much local support for the project and the MRC being the only real opposition, the obvious question is, “Why hasn’t this project gone through yet?”

RFFI Executive Director Art Harwood is skeptical about the delays.

“We’ve done everything the WCB has asked,” he said. “We don’t see why this wouldn’t happen. The potential for what can be done as a community forest is really amazing.”
The project was recommended to the board by WCB staff, but Harwood said the MRC’s opposition has affected progress on the easement since 2007.

“They’ve got the political muscle to stop it in spite of everybody’s support,” he said. “When one letter can derail a project like this, you never really know what can happen.”

Funding for the purchase comes from Prop. 84, passed by California voters in 2006 specifically for water quality and natural resource protection projects. It authorized almost $5.4 billion in general obligation bonds, separate from the state’s general fund, for qualified acquisitions and easements.

The WCB administers the bond money, determining which projects are funded and the criteria by which they are chosen.

WCB Executive Director John Donnelly said board members stalled for a number of reasons including the sheer size of the acquisition.

After the initial delay to account for considerations in the first MRC letter, economic decline led to a bond freeze in 2008 and tabled the project. As soon as bond money was available it was reconsidered, Donnelly said. The proposal made the board’s February agenda.

However, two days before the scheduled vote, another letter from the MRC arrived at the WCB office, asking the board to postpone the  project. The letter reiterated concerns over the easement’s value to tax payers and the accuracy of its appraisal.

At the Feb. 24 meeting, the board decided an independent appraisal review must now be conducted before the project can be voted on. This additional step is required only for projects over $25 million, but the Usal easement purchase totals about $19.5 million.   

 Official letters to and from the board are available on the MRC website: http://www.mrc.com/Communications-BulletinBoard.aspx.

Mike Jani, president and chief forester of the Mendocino Redwood Company and Humboldt Redwood Company, said opposition to the project is in the public interest. He said the while the MRC supports the RFFI and Prop. 84 acquisitions; their objections go beyond individual projects.   

“The issue is with the WCB process of reviewing projects like this and their process of prioritizing where tax payer money is going,” Jani said. “Are we getting the most bang for our buck.”   

If the price is divided directly by the acreage of the Usal purchase, the land costs
about $385 an acre, much less than MRC’s 2003 Willow Creek sale of 3,373 acres to the Sonoma County Open Space District for $5,373 per acre.  

“We think this is one of the best deals the people of California have ever had,” RFFI Executive Director Art Harwood said. “[MRC] reasons seem to be a bit disingenuous. On the surface they just don’t pass the sniff test.”   

Chris Kelly, California program director for the Conservation Fund, a nationwide non-profit that will hold the easement, said the WCB has purchased several similar easements and MRC opposition is typically reserved for adjacent properties.  
   
“They seem to object only to projects in their immediate vicinity,” Kelly said. “If it was mainly a policy issue I think the MRC would object more broadly.”   

In addition to the Usal proposal, MRC opposes funding for a conservation easement in the Gualala River watershed near which it owns land. The WCB delayed this project at the February meeting as well, citing more policy and public benefit issues.

Paul Mason, California policy director for the Pacific Forest Trust, said that large tracts of land are important to ensure viability for working landscapes into the future. He said intact
functioning ecosystems are far less expensive than paying individually for the natural services they provide.   

“Conservation easements are a great way to ensure those critical forest values are always going to be there,” Mason said. “Large tracts of land are important for water quality protection, species adaptation, and sustainable timber practices.”

The WCB says they are currently examining prospective appraisal reviewers and should have the necessary information to vote this summer. All things considered, stakeholders expect the project to pass in June. However, they had also expected it to pass in February, and before that, when it was first considered in 2007.

F. Thomas Cardenas is the Econews intern and currently a junior at Humboldt State University studying journalism and environmental planning.