Can you preserve a forest by logging it? A land conservation group thinks so.

The Conservation Fund announced Monday that, along with some partners, it had acquired 19,645 acres of forest in Sonoma County. The land had been slated for planting vineyards.

Looking east on Preservation Ranch (Conservation Fund)
Looking east on Preservation Ranch (The Conservation Fund)

Preservation Ranch will become part of a larger swath of 75,000 acres managed with “light touch” timber harvesting. The idea is to cut down small, weak trees, allowing big, strong ones to grow, said Chris Kelly, California program director of the Conservation Fund.

“Larger trees produce better lumber and larger trees produce better habitat,” he told KQED’s Peter Jon Shuler. “So managing in a manner that we get larger trees faster is good for the economy and it’s good for the environment.”

The idea is that unlike clear-cutting, selectively harvesting small trees can benefit the forest because it allows other trees to grow bigger. A dense forest of small trees grows relatively slowly.

For about 70 years, private lumber companies cut the trees, including coastal redwoods, faster than they could grow back, causing sediment to flow into the Gualala River watershed, where it harms endangered coho salmon and steelhead trout, Kelly said.

“If we can just slow down harvest rates, reduce sedimentation and manage these forests for their ecological and economic benefits, we think we can bring the fish back,” he said. “We will forever cut less than the forest grows.”

The large trees provide habitat to other endangered species, such as the spotted owl and marbled murrelet.

Big trees also can sequester more carbon, reducing the accumulation of the gas in the atmosphere that is causing climate change. The Conservation Fund expects to sell some carbon credits on the state’s new carbon exchange in return for its contribution to this sequestration.

At the same, harvesting trees can bring in money that pays for property taxes and management of the land, said Kelly. Past preservation has sometimes burdened state parks and private preservation groups with high costs for maintenance.

The location of Preservation Ranch (The Conservation Fund)
The location of Preservation Ranch and neighboring forests.  (The Conservation Fund)

The light logging also will provide some economic sustenance to the local community, Kelly added.

Several organizations helped with funding and logistical support, including the California Coastal Conservancy, the Sonoma County Agricultural Preservation and Open Space District, the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation and the Sonoma Land Trust.

They bought the land from the California Public Employees Retirement System, which had planned to divide the land into vineyards. That would have resulted in more sedimentation, traffic and runoff, said Kelly.

The local community opposed the conversion, and CalPERS approached the Conservation Fund to see if it was interested in buying the land. The $24.5 million purchase price included $14 million from state and Sonoma County open space funds.

Kelly said this is the fourth acquisition in the region in the past 10 years, totaling about 75,000 acres.

Sonoma Deal Aims to Combine Logging and Preservation 5 June,2013Laird Harrison

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