Can you be an environmentalist and support logging? The Conservation Fund intends to find out. The non-profit group recently purchased a massive timber tract in Mendocino County, in central California. But instead of just holding on to the land to protect it, the Conservation Fund intends to harvest the trees in a sustainable manner. Similar experiments are being tried in East Coast forests, but this is the first in California, a state that has been a lightning rod for forest conservation issues.
The directors of The Conservation Fund will tell you they know a lot about forest protection, but they readily admit they don't know much about being land managers and loggers.
"Sort of feel like a new homeowner, coming for the first time to take possession of our ownership here. The key works, that's a good sign," said Chris Keller. "One of the things that struck me when I first saw this property, was of course the scale, 24,000 acres," he continued, opening the gate to the Conservation Fund's new 10,000 hectare forest on an extremely windy and overcast day. "And the complexity of the landscape. And it immediately raises the question: How do you manage a piece of property like this for conservation?"
The non-profit organization purchased the land in February for $18 million. Over half the money came from grants and loans from the state government. A fellow conservation group, the Nature Conservancy pitched in the remaining $3.5 million.
Historically, when an environmental group buys property, it holds the land until it can be turned over to a state or federal agency for protection.
But this time is different. As he stands beside the rushing Garcia River, Mr. Kelley says the Conservation Fund intends to remain here for a long time. "We see the Garcia River project as an opportunity to establish essentially a laboratory to understand how to manage a forest for its economic productivity, and its ecological health as well."
Right now, this land is in poor shape. Chris Kelley says decades of logging the redwood, oak, and Douglas fir trees have taken their toll.
"Those big trees stumps are, maybe three or four in an area of about a thousand square feet [90 square meters], really sort of sparsely distributed throughout the forest landscape, and that's the condition of an old growth forest," explained Mr. Kelley. "But you see the forest over here, same area, roughly a 1,000 square feet, and you probably have about 100 trees, and they're all about as big around as my forearm."
The Conservation Fund plans to use selective logging, so some trees will grow large, to mimic old-growth conditions. The group also plans to restore streams and rivers to their natural state, to allow fish like steelhead and endangered Coho salmon to return. The logging operations will help finance that restoration work.
Right now, the project has the backing of both environmentalists, and many in the timber industry, like Art Harwood, who runs the largest sawmill in Mendocino County. "This type of forestry, community-based forestry, will benefit loggers," said Mr. Harwood. "It just, it will benefit sawmill owners, other woodworkers, the community. There's nobody it does not benefit. Everybody wins."
The project also has the support of the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, which oversees and enforces regulations for timber harvesting on state and private lands. CDF Director Andrea Tuttle applauds the Mendocino project because it will keep a large expanse of forestland intact. Before the Conservation Fund stepped in, the land was supposed to be converted to small vineyards and private residences. Ms. Tuttle says subdividing forests is a growing trend that needs to be halted.
"The benefits of having large open spaces of forest lands is the oxygen production you get from them, the watershed values," she said. "People tend to forget that when you turn on the tap, your water is mostly coming from timberlands."
Besides that, a large, intact forest provides a refuge for birds and other wildlife. Here in Mendocino County, spotted owls make their homes high up in the tree branches and mountain lions prowl the forest floor.
While there's a lot of optimism around the project right now, Chris Kelley and other Conservation Fund officials say they know they have a lot of work ahead of them. "The first harvest is probably years away," he said. "And we expect that when we do advance a timber harvest plan, we will get a variety of reactions from the community, and some of them perhaps wondering, why is a conservation organization cutting trees?"
Given the current conditions, this forest could take 20 or 30 years to produce substantial amounts of quality wood. It's a long wait and a hefty financial gamble. But if it pays off, the Mendocino experiment could become a model for managing timberlands in California and around the world.