Perseverance Pays Off in Fight to Save Old-Growth Redwoods From the Saw
Photo by Aarkwilde, coutesy of Wikimedia Commons
The Sierra Club and local environmentalists in Sonoma County, California, have won a David and Goliath battle to scale back logging of old-growth coast redwoods and Douglas fir in the Bohemian Grove, above, a 2,500-acre property owned by the elite San Francisco-based Bohemian Club.
A settlement reached by the Sierra Club, the Bohemian Redwood Rescue Club (BRRC), and the Bohemian Club includes numerous changes to a previously-approved logging plan that the Sierra Club and BRRC successfully challenged in court, including protection of the finest stands and largest individual trees on the property.
"We are pleased that the Bohemian Club has made significant changes to its forest management plan which will result in improved long-term protection and restoration of the majestic Bohemian Grove and its coastal redwoods and Douglas fir," says Jay Halcomb, at left, chair of the Sierra Club's Redwood Chapter, which celebrated its 50th anniversary in 2008.
The Bohemian Grove represents one of the most remarkable remnant stands of old-growth and late successional redwood and fir forest in Sonoma County. The Bohemian Club's own publication, Walking Bohemia's Home: Introduction to the Redwoods, states that the redwoods on the property "comprise one of the two finest stands of virgin timber in the lower Russian River area."
As a result of its relatively pristine character, the Grove has significant wildlife habitat for threatened and sensitive species, including the Northern Spotted Owl. Ironically, the Bohemian Club's mascot is the owl.
The stage for the mediated settlement was set when the Sierra Club and the BRRC prevailed in Sierra Club v. CAL-FIRE in Sonoma County Superior Court last year.
The Bohemian Club, an ultra-exclusive men's club comprised of 2,500 of America's richest and most powerful individuals, had logged more than 11 million board feet of timber in the Bohemian Grove between 1984 and 2005, including old-growth redwoods.
Coast redwoods (Sequoia sempervirens), which grow only in a narrow band that extends fewer than 500 miles from Monterey County, California, to extreme southwestern Oregon, are the tallest trees on earth; coast Douglas fir (Pseudotsuga menziesii), which grow from central California to central British Columbia, are second.
The fight to scale back logging in the Bohemian Grove, located 75 miles north of San Francisco, was initiated by lifetime Sierra Club member and then-Bohemian Club member John Hooper, at right.
Hooper, who with his wife Molly runs a retreat center and organic farm in Mendocino County, Ca., was invited to join the Bohemian Club in 1999. His great-grandfather, grandfather, and uncle were all members, and his grandfather used to take him to the Grove when he was a boy, instilling in him an awe of the towering redwoods.
Once he joined the club, Hooper began exploring the outlying acres of the Grove, using the club's trail map and a 1942 aerial photo that showed nine far-flung stands of old-growth redwoods on the property. In 2001, he hiked to the largest of them, Bull Barn, which the club's own literature describes as containing "the finest hillside stand of old-growth redwood in the Grove." But deep within the 54-acre stand he was startled to find several dozen of the most magnificent trees tagged for cutting.
Hooper wrote to the Grove Committee and the club president, saying he assumed there must have been a mistake, and offering to meet with the committee and "serve in any capacity which helps protect our forest legacy." He was politely told the matter was none of his business, but the committee did vote to cancel its 2001 harvest.
The next year, cutting of old-growth resumed, although not in the Bull Barn stand. Alarmed, Hooper alerted other members of the club and presented a paper to the Grove Committee on the future of the club's forestlands. He received a letter from the club's president in response, informing him that his actions were "unbohemian" and were promoting disharmony in the club.
Undeterred, in the autumn of 2003 Hooper circulated another paper on the impacts of logging in the Bohemian Grove, this time receiving a curt reply from the chairman of the Grove Committee that "our forest management policies will remain in effect."
His consternation deepening, Hooper got a copy of the club's application for a new Non-Industrial Timber Management Plan (NTMP), and was horrified to find that the club did not acknowledge any old-growth stands in areas to be logged, stating on the application that "the property has no special or unique values."
A sympathetic club member smuggled Hooper an internal report from the Bohemian Grove's forester which concluded that the new logging plan was unsustainable. When that forester was replaced by someone amenable to the club's plan, Hooper concluded that the fight could not be won within the club, and he resigned his membership in 2004, forming the Bohemian Redwood Rescue Club with eight local activists.
For the next several years the BRRC doggedly fought the Bohemian Club's proposed timber management plan. Scientists from UCLA and UC-Davis and the California Department of Fish and Game criticized the plan as unsustainable, and the Sierra Club's Redwood Chapter took up the fight in 2006, publicizing the issue, galvanizing local opposition, and bringing other local environmental groups like Forest Unlimited onboard.
In reaction to the criticism, the Bohemian Club scaled back its NTMP, but rejected settlement offers proposed by the Sierra Club and others for a less damaging plan. In 2009 it resubmitted its NTMP to log nearly two million board feet per year in the Grove, offering no "feasible alternatives" to the proposed logging. The California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, or CAL-FIRE, approved the plan two days before new, stronger regulations protecting local runs of salmon and steelhead took effect.
Also in 2009, Vanity Fair contributing editor Alex Shoumatoff, a college classmate of Hooper's, published an article, "Bohemian Tragedy," in that periodical, bringing the Bohemian Grove logging controversy to a national audience.
The Sierra Club and the Bohemian Redwood Rescue Club filed suit in January 2010, and the Redwood Chapter led the charge in organizing public opposition to the logging plan. In the months that followed, the Bohemian Club's NTMP, which allowed for clear-cutting, drew more public comments than any in the history of California's 40-year-old Forest Practice Act.
In March 2011 a Sonoma Superior Court judge found for the plaintiffs in Sierra Club v. CAL-FIRE, ordering the agency rescind the NTMP for the Bohemian Grove. "The ruling is significant because it required CAL-FIRE to consider reasonable alternatives that are less damaging to the environment," says Paul Carroll, the Sierra Club attorney who argued the case.
In April 2012, a mediated settlement was reached by the Sierra Club, the Bohemian Redwood Rescue Club, and the Bohemian Club, that will protect a greater number of large trees in the healthiest parts of the Grove's forest, and mark for permanent protection the largest and grandest specimens. It also established that all old-growth stands must be managed so that tree volumes are kept similar to the Upper Bull Barn old-growth reference stand—the very stand in which Hooper first chanced upon old-growth trees tagged for logging.
The public comment period on the settlement closed on May 24, 2012, meaning it will not be challenged. And so a single determined individual, who learned as a child to revere the majesty of the great trees in the Bohemian Grove, ultimately prevailed in his quest to keep the Grove "a place of wonder and inspiration, a place for spiritual fulfillment, for education and oneness with nature" (Hooper's words in one of his entreaties to the Grove Committee).
"In my mind, the involvement of the Redwood Chapter—the Sierra Club saying this was a huge, important issue—put this on the map," Hooper says. "Before that it was a few voices crying in the wilderness. But after the Club became involved all sorts of things happened, including funding, publicity, and legal action. A lot of people associate the Sierra Club with protection of redwoods and habitat—that's what really spurred public opposition and helped turn the tide."
Click on the image below to watch a 2-minute video of Hooper explaining why the Bohemian Club should not have been applying for a Non-Industrial Timber Management Plan in the first place if it was truly interested in preserving its old-growth forest.
"This is obviously a great victory for coastal redwoods," says Bruce Hamilton, the national Sierra Club's deputy executive director. "All of the unprotected redwoods we have left are in private hands, so it's very difficult to give them added protection. But in this case, years of effort by the Redwood Chapter, local environmentalists, and one stellar individual Sierra Club member managed to secure great protections for these beautiful, irreplaceable trees."
Read more about the fight to save the Bohemian Grove's forest legacy.