The Mattole Restoration Council:

Cooperation or Conflict?

Freeman House




The Mattole Restoration Council is a coalition of community groups, landowners and individuals in the Mattole River watershed of northern California. The Council and its associated groups have been involved in watershed assessment and restoration since 1985. In recent years, the Council has been increasingly engaged in the monitoring of timber harvest plans in the watershed.

Controversy about timber harvest practices in the Mattole (and elsewhere in the Klamath Province) is old enough to buy a drink in California. Most of the arguments have centered on the California Forest Practices Act, a book of rules that has grown to formidable size as understanding of forest health has grown more sophisticated. Enforcing the rules adequately would require that the Departments of Forestry, Fish & Game, and Water Quality double and triple their current level of field staffing. In a series of state administrations that have been more protective of corporate profits than they have of forest health, the staffs of these regulatory agencies have shrunk even as the rule book was growing, a situation that creates opportunities for considerable abuse of the law. The gap has been filled by a small army of volunteer citizen paralegals who spend their evenings wrestling with the Forest Practice Act in the hope of slowing down the disappearance of the forests and fisheries that contribute so much to their quality of life. This little army is often out-gunned by a smaller but much more well-compensated platoon of lawyers whose charge it is to keep things as they are.

In the course of any Timber Harvest Plan (THP), the landowner is required to hire a Registered Professional Forester (RPF), an expensive proposition, who then designs the plan according to his or her interpretation of the rules. In places where there are neighbors worried about the effects of the proposed logging on the general health of forests and waterways, a 15-day public comment period allows them the opportunity to fire off letters of concern about the plan to the Department of Forestry in Fortuna or Santa Rosa or Sacramento, where public servants who have almost never seen the land being discussed deliver responses that rarely satisfy the letter-writers. The disagreement often escalates into litigation; a judge who almost surely has no immediate knowledge of the slopes and waterways in question is asked to settle the conflict. Again, a large outlay of money on both sides of the argument, a situation which tends to benefit corporate landowners who live far from the forests in question„and to punish the smaller timberland owner who lives on his or her land. Timber supplies and salmon populations continue to dwindle while the rulebook grows thicker with reforms that do little to create a consensus about what constitutes watershed health and sustainable logging.

For the twelve or so years that the Mattole Restoration Council (MRC) has been monitoring THPs in the Mattole basin, it has done its share of letterwriting. But rather than pursuing litigation, the MRC has worked to attempt to solve the problems of interpretation while standing on the site under discussion„with the landowner and the RPF, and where possible, with the neighbors who are most likely to be affected. With surprising regularity, we have found that when the arguments are refocused on how an actual stream crossing is to be designed or which trees are actually going to be cut, it is possible for many disputes to be resolved both in the context of landscape health and in the context of the landowner's economic needs. Such successes have been spotty, however, due to many landowners' reluctance to open their land use practices to the scrutiny of strangers.

Sanford Lowry, a rancher who owns forest lands in the North Fork of the Mattole, was attempting to find a way out of this contentious procedural maze when he approached the Mattole Restoration Council in 1991. Lowry was about to mount a THP in conjunction with a neighboring rancher and an industrial timber owner, Sierra Pacific Industries (SPI). Aware of the MRC's consistent interest in timber management practices in the Mattole, Sanford proposed an idea that was obvious for its common sense at the same time as it was precedent-shattering. Why not get all the interested parties involved from the beginning of the planning process with discussions taking place right in the forests and waterways which would be affected?

The plan which resulted, THP 1-92-281H, was a selective cut spread over 527 acres on three properties. Forester Bill Blackwell of SPI wrote the plan and supervised it. After numerous consultations and tours led by Mr. Lowry, the MRC entered into a contract paid for by the landowners to monitor whether or not sediment from the timber operation was reaching the waterways. MRC also hoped to gain from the project some practical approaches to the zero net sediment recommendations for the Mattole basin which had been in place since 1991, but which no one seemed to know how to implement. In addition, the agreement called for a streamside plantation of one thousand willow cuttings, sub-contracted to the Petrolia School.

The monitoring was approached from three different perspectives. The first two are standard monitoring procedures which hadn't been performed before in the context of the goal of net zero sedimentation. Habitat typing is a protocol developed by the Department of Fish and Game for quantifying the value of a watercourse as habitat for salmon and steelhead. Taking a variety of consistent measurements before and after the logging operation would allow the monitors to gain knowledge of the direct impact of the logging show on habitat quality. The work was done by Maureen Roche of the Mattole Salmon Group, along with volunteers. Channel cross-sections allow the monitors to evaluate changes over time in the distribution of materials at the bottom of the channel at specific sites. Neither of these procedures were able to deliver conclusive demonstrations of cause-and-effect relationships between logging and instream sediment. (Such a bland sentence as the preceding shouldnľt be let pass without noting the hours of field work, endless discussion, strained relationships and whole days of volunteer double-checking on the ground that led up to this non-conclusion. But in the end, the protocols themselves were not adequate to the questions we were asking them to answer. The interesting details are available in the final report on the contract, on file at the MRC office.)

The third approach, proactive road monitoring, emerged during the course of the project to assume the most productive role. Its goal was not so much to amass quantifiable data as it was to provide added protection against potentially destructive erosional processes which might result from the new roads which the plan included. Previous MRC studies had taught us that disturbances to natural drainage caused by roads account for a high percentage of the accelerated erosive processes associated with logging. Good road-building is a combination of science and art and vigilant maintenance. The science is a combination of geological and engineering expertise which is applied to the design process; the art is provided by the skills of the heavy equipment operator whose quality of attention and delicacy of touch harnesses the enormous capabilities of the machine he is operating. MRC geomorphologist Thomas Dunklin, forester Bill Blackwell and landowner Lowry consulted often during the design and construction of the new roads. During the two years it took to complete the operation, Dunklin and Blackwell walked the roads together during or after winter storms looking for potential problem sites such as culverts that weren't draining properly, berms that were capturing too much water, or cutbank failures that diverted flows onto unstable ground. When the two agreed that a problem existed that might grow into potential delivery of sediment to waterways, Blackwell called his equipment operators back to the site to fine-tune the road design. There is no doubt that this preventative approach eliminated some small problems that might later have grown into large problems. But because the large problems didn't develop, it is an affect we are never going to be able to measure. You can only measure sedimentation after it has reached the waterways and done its damage.

By taking a cooperative and site-specific approach to a particular timber harvest plan, we began to learn to deal with the landscape on its own terms, rather than exclusively through the generic lens of science or centralized regulations. We didn't come up with a one-equation-fits-all answer to the question of how to codify the zero net sediment regulation. But we did witness a forest that had given up a sizable volume of building materials while maintaining its moist cool tree-growing soils along with the habitat structures that support its wildlife. A particularly fierce winter storm had produced additional silt in the North Fork of the Mattole from streambank erosion, but the same storm rearranged large woody debris in the channels (none of which came from the timber recently harvested) that improved the quality of salmonid habitat. Everyone involved received the gift of discovering that enhanced communication is as important a tool as are bulldozers and chainsaws when the goal is good forestry. Importantly, these gifts cost perhaps a tenth of what a legal battle in a distant courtroom would have cost.

As might be expected from a first attempt at a new approach, not every problem was solved. There remain several difficult crossings and drainage structures that will require vigilant maintenance by the landowners and constructive monitoring by the regulatory agencies. If monitoring is to have the effect of keeping sediment out of the streams, problems must be identified early enough in the year so that landowners have the time to repair them before the winter rains.

Problem-solving on the ground is a welcome and necessary addition to the adversarial and procedural mazes that define the conflicts between logging practices and ecological balance today. The survival of forest-dependent communities may depend on the human elements of those communities learning to speak the same language and work together toward common goals.