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Cal Fire pushes back against logging plan in sensitive Felta Creek area

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TROUBLED WATERS  Healdsburg’s Felta Creek is one of of the last coho salmon spawning creeks in Sonoma County.
  • TROUBLED WATERS Healdsburg’s Felta Creek is one of of the last coho salmon spawning creeks in Sonoma County.

The California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection (Cal Fire) issued a point-by-point rejection last month of a proposed logging plan on land that crosses Felta Creek in the forested wilds of Healdsburg.

The creek is home to one of the last coho salmon populations in the Russian River watershed.

Ken Bareilles, a 75-year-old Humboldt County businessman, received notice on July 28—the deadline that had been set for approval—that his timber harvest plan had failed to address numerous concerns raised over the proposed 146-acre harvest.

In advance of the Cal Fire decision to delay his proposal and send it back for further public review and input from the owner, Bareilles told the Bohemian that he fully expected the green light from Cal Fire. On July 31, he fired off a sharply worded rejoinder to the Santa Rosa Cal Fire point person on the Felta Creek THP, Dominik Schwab, that raged against the agency's apparent and, to Bareilles' mind, surprise turnabout. "Needless to say, I strongly oppose and totally resent your letter which would lead to opening up the [timber harvest plan] for new and additional public comment and big-time additional delay. . . . Your office has to step up to the plate and do you[r] job, not be intimidated by all the letters from the neighbors, unless they point out some truly significant defect in our proposed THP."

Cal Fire had signaled its apparent approval of the THP well in advance of the July 28 deadline, by which time public comments to the proposal would be reviewed by Schwab. Many of the comments called for a dramatically scaled down logging plan. Schwab's letter was all the more surprising since the Cal Fire website that tracks progress of timber harvest plans had checked off the "approved" box at least a week before July 28. That led opponents to believe that the project was a done deal.

Soon after a Bohemian reporter contacted Cal Fire about the apparent pre-approval of a process that was putatively ongoing, the "approved" box was subsequently unchecked.

Opponents from state and federal fisheries management agencies, such as the California Department of Fish and Wildlife and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and Healdsburg locals, have cautioned mightily against a timber harvest plan that they say could undo significant state and federally funded progress made in Felta Creek to restore endangered coho salmon to some level of viability. In recent drought years, Felta Creek has occasionally been the only tributary of Dry Creek to support coho spawning.

The Cal Fire letter to Bareilles demanded that he resubmit his timber harvest plan with additional details on how he planned to protect the fish on his land and cited new information that had animated the decision to delay and send back the THP for further tweaks. The agency also requested that he revise a truck-access plan along Felta Creek Road which runs parallel to the creek.

In his response to Cal Fire, Bareilles claimed he'd been betrayed by the agency as he reiterated what he called basic facts about the land and his proposal, not the least of which is that it's zoned for timber production. The parcel hasn't been logged since 1994.

The Cal Fire decision doesn't put an end to the proposed plan, and Bareilles' continues to insist that he is within his rights to harvest on his land—and that he's already done everything Cal Fire has asked of him as a condition of its approval.

In an interview, before receiving Cal Fire's letter, Bareilles noted that he'd spent tens of thousands of dollars to clean up the 160-acre tract (which he purchased for $2.5 million in 2015) of debris and abandoned cars that he says were left behind by the previous owner. He says he spent between $15,000 and $20,000 to reinforce a bridge so it could bear the weight of dozens of logging trucks.

"I've made huge improvements on the land," he says, describing it as a "junkyard" when he bought it. The property is now on the market for $7.5 million, and Bareilles says there's at least $3 million in timber to be harvested. His plan is to harvest the timber and then sell the land. He has no designs on moving to the property and lives in Eureka.

The Cal Fire letter serves to reopen the public comment period for an additional 30 days and also builds in a two-week window for the agency to review additional comments and decide whether Bareilles has addressed the numerous issues highlighted by Schwab and Cal Fire (and the public comments to date). Elected officials, from State Sen. Mike McGuire to Sonoma County Supervisor James Gore, have weighed in with their significant concerns about the THP, now reflected in the Schwab letter of July 28.

In the meantime, there is hope that a deep-pocketed do-good buyer will come forward, or that Bareilles will prune-down his proposed harvest to a spot-harvest plan targeting individual trees, and perhaps protect the endangered coho's foothold in the process.

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