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Logging in the Floodplain

Logging proposed near river banks

Gualala Redwoods, Inc., which manages 35,000 acres of the Gualala River watershed in northwest Sonoma and southwest Mendocino Counties, has proposed two plans that combined would cut trees in 400 acres next to the river. The “Lily” plan proposes logging along the North Fork and Little North Fork, while the “Iris” plan proposes logging along the South Fork of the Gualala River. Both of these plans, if approved, would greatly distress the already impaired river and its threatened and endangered fish species.

Tall redwoods The “Lily” plan is almost identical to the “Cassidy” plan that raised a large public outcry when it was proposed four years ago. According to the National Marine Fisheries Service, the Regional Water Quality Control Board, and the California Department of Forestry, the Cassidy plan would have seriously impacted the recovery efforts of coho salmon and steelhead trout, which are listed as threatened under the federal Endangered Species Act. Consequently, the Department of Forestry denied the Cassidy plan, and when Gualala Redwoods appealed to the California Board of Forestry, the Board upheld that denial.

Gualala Redwoods has sued the Department and Board of Forestry [February 2006: the court denies Gualala Redwoods' petition], and has now submitted the plan again under the name “Lily.” The facts on the ground haven’t changed – the trees near the river’s edge are large, and would generate a profit for the company, but the river is still impaired by excess sediment and high temperatures that threaten the survival of coho and steelhead. The plan should again be denied, according to the National Marine Fisheries Service, the Department of Fish & Game, and the Regional Water Board. The “Iris” plan, a similar plan on the South Fork, should be denied for the same reasons.

Why are floodplain logging plans being proposed?

Throughout northern California, timber companies such as Gualala Redwoods, Inc., are proposing to cut trees alongside rivers, tributaries, and streams.

The areas near a river’s edge are called riparian zones. In the low-lying valleys of a watershed, riparian zones are prone to flooding. Floodplains are ecologically rich areas that protect the health of a river and the many creatures whose lives depend on the river. While selective floodplain logging is permissible under current regulations, timber companies have rarely proposed cuts within these sensitive areas. Regulations state that watercourse vegetation shall be protected and remain standing to the degree necessary to protect scenic and natural qualities and to protect the beneficial uses of water.

Timber companies are proposing to cut within these flood-prone riparian areas for several reasons: excessive historical cutting and sheer economics. The areas alongside rivers contain some of the most productive timber remaining in coastal northern California. The trees are larger not only because they receive generous amounts of water, but also because these trees have been considered off limits since the passage of California’s Forest Practices Act thirty years ago, and have grown older and larger.

Many of the riparian strips bordering rivers have been left alone as protective measures to mitigate the effects of nearby upland clearcuts (see photo). In other words, nearby clearcuts were approved in part on the understanding that the riparian buffer is an important ecological feature that would remain undisturbed.

From an economic standpoint, it is easy to understand why timber companies are targeting the short-term profits to be gained from riparian or floodplain logging. However, the long-term impacts should be reason for pause.

Gualala River, looking south, 1999
Thin riparian strip of trees
bordering the Gualala River
with clearcuts upslope

Trees Keep the River Cool

Riparian buffers and floodplains in low-lying valleys provide many ecological benefits. They preserve water quality for aquatic life, recreation, and other beneficial uses. Riparian areas act as filters capturing sediments and reducing nutrients and pesticides that can runoff from nearby use. Most of the rivers along the north coast are impaired due to excess levels of sediment. Reducing the vegetation alongside rivers will further diminish the filtering abilities of the riparian strip and thus the health of the rivers.

Additionally, trees near the water’s edge provide shade that keeps the water cool. With low flows in the hottest periods of the year, the shade from trees and other riparian vegetation are vital to the survival of cold-water fish such as coho salmon and steelhead trout, which are already threatened with extinction. With the removal of vegetation and canopy, temperatures can reach levels that kill fish.


From a short-range economic perspective, it is easy to understand the appeal in cutting large trees. Yet, it is essential to remember why these areas still have sizable trees. For 30 years, riparian areas have been recognized for their importance in maintaining biodiversity, acting as a filter for sediments and nutrients, and preserving water temperatures for fish and other water organisms. We must protect the riparian areas for the health of the rivers, its fish and other organisms, and ultimately our health as humans.

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