Bohemian Club's logging plan raises plenty of sawdust
by Jane Kay
San Francisco Chronicle, July 12, 2007
As about 2,000 members of the Bohemian Club start arriving this week for the famously secret annual encampment of relaxation, high jinks and male bonding, the club's board is fighting for an ambitious logging plan for its Bohemian Grove on the Russian River.
The high-powered club is seeking a special logging permit that would allow it to cut more than 1 million board feet each year in perpetuity without strict environmental review. That's enough to build 70 houses a year from the mature redwood forest -- the closest unprotected one to San Francisco.
Dozens of "Bohos" have written to the state Department of Forestry and Fire Protection in support of the logging plan, saying that it would reduce the risk of wildfire. They're battling scientists and environmentalists who worry that the plan would allow the club to double the amount of logging it does and would require little oversight.
The next public hearing on the plan is expected in late summer.
The controversy exemplifies a nationwide clash over the best ways to prevent forest fires.
The Bohemian Club's board says it wants to reduce the risk of fire in its storied grove, but scientists at the state Department of Fish and Game, the UC Extension Service, UCLA and the Sierra Club argue that acceleration of logging in the remaining patches of old coastal redwoods and Douglas fir won't accomplish that goal. Instead, the plan might contribute to fire risk as well as degrade the rare habitat, they say.
The idyllic grove in the little town of Monte Rio is always off limits to Sonoma County neighbors, but that's particularly so from today until the last Sunday in July. Corporate heads, political bosses, legal and financial figures, and artists -- members of the club -- are leaving behind their workaday world to bask in the beauty of giant redwoods, some of them 300 feet high and 1,000 years old.
In recent years, Charles Schwab, Colin Powell, Donald Rumsfeld, Henry Kissinger and Walter Cronkite -- some winging in on private jets -- have mingled with the less-famous elite. Every Republican president, and a few Democrats, have been members of the 135-year-old, men-only club.
The club's board filed last year for a special "nonindustrial" logging permit, which is available for landowners with fewer than 2,500 acres of timberland. The club's hired forester, Nick Kent, asserts that the club has 2,470 acres of timberland on its 2,700 acres of property and qualifies for the permit.
Members of the Sierra Club, who have closely monitored the club's application, and a Santa Cruz group called Neighbors Against Irresponsible Logging are looking into whether those acreage numbers are correct.
Since 1984, when it started to log its land, the club has received approval for 18 individual timber plans, which undergo strict environmental scrutiny from state officials. The club won't say how much it has cut, but its former consulting forester, Edward Tunheim, had limited logging to just 500,000 board feet a year -- half of what the club could cut under the perpetual nonindustrial permit. Environmentalists estimate that the club has cut 11 million board feet since 1984. The club hasn't asked to cut the ancient trees on the land.
Leslie Markham, deputy chief of the northern region of the state Department of Forestry in Santa Rosa, said the club might want the nonindustrial permit for several reasons.
"It's a way once you have the plan, you don't have to submit each timber-harvest plan and go through the California Environmental Quality Act process," Markham said.
Matt Oggero, the club's Bohemian Grove manager, said the group sought the nonindustrial permit because it's available and "in the long run it will be less expensive and probably a more efficient way to go about managing the property."
Oggero declined to say how much money the club receives from the sale of the timber, which is typically sold to a sawmill. "We're not doing it to generate income but for the health of the forest and to prevent forest fires," Oggero said.
Letters from club members have poured into state mailboxes.
A 42-year member from Belmont, D. Warner North, is a former consultant on wildland fires for the U.S. Forest Service. He wrote: "Our primary purpose is recreational and to be good stewards, so our wonderful forest can continue to be enjoyed, as I have enjoyed it, by members and guests of our club for many generations to come."
North said he hadn't reviewed the plan but like other members had been assured that it would protect again fire and promote a healthy forest.
Some club members might disagree, although generally they've kept their opposition from becoming public.
John Hooper, who runs an orchard and truck garden in Mendocino County, resigned from the Bohemian Club in 2004 after a few years of failing to persuade club leaders to change the club's logging practices. Hooper, who owns hundreds of acres of land himself, been unsuccessful in getting club members to go on the record with any opposition, he said.
"More than one member has said to me, 'I completely agree with you. It looks terrible where it's been logged. But I don't want to be kicked out of the club.' "
The proposal before state officials was written with advice from Tom Bonnicksen, a board member of the California Forest Foundation and a retired forestry professor at Texas A&M University. The forest foundation is financially supported by Sierra Pacific, Georgia Pacific and other timber companies.
Bonnicksen is a proponent of the Bush administration's Healthy Forests Initiative and in 2002 received the first Bush Excellence in Public Service Award directly from the president.
Bonnicksen said he designed the "conceptual plan that gave the Bohemian Club the vision" for its logging proposal but he didn't prepare it. The Bohemian Grove was "so overcrowded with trees that it was in danger of burning," he said. He believes in cutting groups of trees to open up canopies for light, which encourages growth.
Other experts conclude that the aggressive logging of groups of old trees would dry out the humid forest of mixed redwood and Douglas fir. Open areas would also aid growth of invasive shrubs and trees, which readily burn; old redwoods do not, some experts say.
The state Department of Forestry has reviewed the proposal for more than a year, and heard comments from Fish and Game and the North Coast Regional Water Quality Control Board. Also examining the proposal are U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service biologists who are charged with protecting rare marbled murrelets, spotted owls and other species that live in such forests.
Fish and Game biologist Stacy Martinelli has opposed fragmenting the big, contiguous patches that remain in the Bohemian Grove and has recommended single logging -- rather than group logging -- of the mature trees, which are in short supply. The older trees are important for wildlife, including tree voles, murrelets and owls, she said.
Philip Rundel, distinguished professor of biology in UCLA's department of ecology and evolutionary biology, questioned the Bohemian Club's assertion that its plan would reduce the risk of fire risk, because redwoods are not very flammable.
"This is clearly a logging project, not a project to reduce fire hazard," he wrote.