BY MARY CALLAHAN
THE PRESS DEMOCRAT
November 25, 2014
Nearly 30,000 acres timberland straddling the Sonoma-Mendocino county border and stretching across the mouth of the Gualala River have been put on the auction block, creating what conservationists are calling a prime opportunity for a landmark preservation deal that could permanently protect and restore a giant swath of forest, allow for potential park development and consolidate a protected area larger than Point Reyes National Seashore.
Gualala Redwoods Inc. has put its entire timber holdings out to bid, offering an expanse of mixed redwood and Douglas fir, nearly 20 miles of river frontage and a developable 58-acre bluff-top parcel in town.
The 47-square-mile property abuts several others acquired over the past decade or so for conservation, including the nearly 20,000-acre Buckeye Forest, once known as Preservation Ranch, near Annapolis.
The outcome of any sale won’t be known for months— offers aren’t due until early next year — but a coalition of conservation groups is assessing the Gualala Redwoods property and exploring options for a deal that could permit lighter forestry practices, watershed reclamation and recreation.
“It’s a pretty amazing opportunity — just the scale of it,” said Ralph Benson, executive director of the Sonoma Land Trust, which has assembled a group of potential conservation partners to evaluate options. Those involved include the Save the Redwoods League, the Mendocino Land Trust, the Redwood Coast Land Conservancy, the Sonoma County Agricultural Preservation and Open Space District, Sonoma County Regional Parks, the Sonoma Land Trust and the Conservation Fund, a national non-profit that manages the adjoining Buckeye, Garcia River and Gualala River forests, totalling more than 57,000 acres.
The GRI property wraps around the community of Gualala and the river estuary, just north of The Sea Ranch and Gualala Point Regional Park, and is about evenly split between Mendocino and Sonoma counties. It is the largest commercially held timber property left in Sonoma County.
It includes what Benson described as “significant stands of redwoods” along the river and an area identified at least as far back as 1955 as a desirable site for a major regional or state park, according to Sonoma County park records.
The potential for greater access to the river “is one of the things that’s so exciting about this,” Benson said.
Most access points currently are behind locked gates, said Chris Poehlmann, president of Friends of Gualala River, a nonprofit watershed protection group. Making it easier for boaters and hikers to enjoy the rarity of an undeveloped, undammed river so close to Bay Area population centers “would be a great boon for the tourism industry and also, I think, a gem for (GRI owner and chairman) Ollie Edmunds” as a legacy, Poehlmann said.
Gualala Redwoods officials reached out to conservation groups months ago to alert them the property would soon be up for sale. Many public and nonprofit officials were treated to a tour of the timberland in August for a first-hand look.
But they nonetheless expect to compete with timber companies and others interested in what’s been described as a highly productive “redwood tree farm” that could supply successful investors with “near and long-term cash flow,” resale opportunities and development potential on the 58-acre tract zoned for a mixed-use planned development, according to LandVest, which is marketing the site.
GRI holds several approved timber harvest plans, including some along the river and its tributaries, according to state Board of Forestry records.
And it comes on the market at a time of rising interest in consolidation of commercial timberland and intensive logging, environmentalists said.
“We’ve had good interest in the property,” said LandVest broker David K. Walters.
But Sonoma County Supervisor Efren Carrillo, whose district includes part of the land at issue, said Edmunds and his family could choose to facilitate a conservation deal that would serve as a family legacy.
“My hope is that’s the perspective that he brings, that this isn’t about just cashing in the biggest check, but doing what’s right for the environment,” Carrillo said.
The GRI property has been owned and managed by the Edmunds family for 66 years, first by the late Ollie Edmunds Sr., who died in 1984. Ollie Edmunds Jr., of New Orleans, is chairman and chief executive.
The Edmunds family has been committed to sustainable management of the land, Walters said, and in 1990 donated more than 10 acres of land just outside town to the Gualala Arts Center for a new facility.
GRI also was majority owner of what’s now the 5,630-acre Jenner Headlands Preserve, acquired for $36 million in 2009 by a coalition of conservation agencies that includes some of the same players trying to build an offer for the Gualala land “We have tried to be good stewards of the land by growing more than we harvest over the decades,” Edmunds said in an email. “We are pleased that others in the community and state recognize what we have done.”
He noted that any buyer would be bound by state logging rules that are “the most strict forest regulations in the world.”
But Walters said there was “no real way to ensure that future owners will manage it in a similar way. I guess the only opportunity that the Edmunds would have would be through the review of bids and the record of the potential buyers, if that is something they’re concerned with it.”
Poehlmann and former Mendocino County Supervisor Norman de Vall, president of the Redwood Coast Watersheds Alliance, said recent decades have seen increasingly aggressive logging around the region, on GRI property and neighboring lands. They said the activity has raised particular concerns about cumulative impacts on the Gualala River watershed.
Forests are also under continuing risk of conversion for high-value wine grapes as was planned for nearly 1,800 acres of the Preservation Ranch property before it became part of the largest conservation deal in county history last year.
The Gualala River “is a watershed in recovery,” Poehlmann said. “It’s built San Francisco twice” — before and after the 1906 earthquake.
“We’ve felt that it could have had a lighter touch as far as the frequency of harvest and how much it was being asked to give during this recovery period,” he said.
A successful conservation deal could stitch together nearly 87,000 contiguous acres, including the property already owned and managed by the Conservation Fund, which the group has called the largest permanently protected working forest in California.
Chris Kelly, California Program Director for the Conservation Fund, said such large contiguous blocks of protected habitat are a boon for wildlife.
Selective logging of certain tracts would provide proceeds to help with the purchase while allowing for preservation of redwood groves and large trees near the river, Kelly and others said.
Bids are due Feb. 10. It’s not clear if GRI has set an opening bid level. Access to a timber inventory, environmental assessment and other detailed documents connected with the marketing, as well as the identities of interested parties, are covered under confidentiality agreements.
“Obviously, we’re not the only game in town,” said Bill Keene, general manager of the Sonoma County Open Space District, and GRI is likely “not interested in giving it away.”
“But that said, I think they would be fair and look for a good deal,” he said. “We don’t know what might come forward from the private sector. There could very well be a private sector bid that could dwarf anything that the public sector could come up with. But if we can put a deal together, we will.”