A years-long fight to preserve one of the largest tracts of old growth forest still under private ownership in the US seems to be coming to an end, as a conservation group has raised the funds needed to purchase the land and ensure it is permanently protected. California’s Save the Redwoods League will purchase 426 acres of old growth forest in Mendocino County, including 123 acres of redwoods as well as stands of Douglas-firs. The non-profit plans to transfer the land to a trust that will make sure it is permanently protected. The move will protect ancient trees that would otherwise have been logged over the next several years.
“The League’s purchase of the property would protect these last survivors of an ancient forest and allow restoration of habitat for imperiled salmon in the Noyo River,” says a statement on the Save the Redwood’s League web site.
Located in Mendocino County’s Noyo River Canyon, the soon to be protected area is currently in the hands of Willits Redwood Company, a logging corporation that bought the tract in 2007. The company was planning to begin logging old growth trees over the next five years, and had already marked many ancient trees for cutting. Willits decided to reconsider when Save the Redwoods League approached executives with the idea of making a purchase. The company agreed to move forward with a sale if the conservation group could raise $7 million by April 1st of this year.
The League launched a fund raising campaign in November of 2010, determined to save one of the most important tracts of unprotected redwoods and Douglas-firs remaining on the west coast. Close to four thousand people from across the country contributed to the cause, and their donations were added to $4 million which the League had waiting in a reserve fund. On March 24th the League announced it had raised the money required to make the purchase, plus an extra $500,000 which will go toward maintaining the area and making it accessible to visitors.
Now Willits Redwood Company and the Save the Redwoods League are finalizing the sale of the land, a process they say will be finished by April 29th. One it is transferred to conservationists’ hands, the League plans to use the Noyo Canyon land for educational purposes, bringing in tour groups to learn about the history of the area and the ecology of redwood forests. The old growth ecosystem is home to endangered and threatened wildlife like the Pacific fisher, northern spotted owl, marbled murrelet, and red-legged frog. The Noyo River also supports salmon and steelhead populations. But probably the most attractive feature of the landscape for visitors will be the giant old growth trees themselves, some of which are more than 1,500 years old.
Bruce Burton and Chris Baldo, the co-owners of Willits Redwood Company, say they sold the land to conservationists for less than its true value, largely because their company would have had to deal with a slew of lawsuits had it tried to move forward with logging. Even though the Noyo Canyon tract is on private land, a developer like Willits still needs certain permissions from state agencies before beginning to harvest timber. Though Willits received its permits initially, environmental groups like the Sierra Club and the Center for Biological Diversity indicated they would sue if the company decided to log. When Save the Redwoods League approached Burton and Baldo with the idea of a purchase, the company seized the chance to avoid a drawn-out legal battle.
Now environmental groups elsewhere in California are looking to the story of the successful Noyo Canyon purchase as an example of how they might secure protection for other imperiled areas. California is home to many biologically diverse ecosystems, including not just old growth forests but grasslands and wetlands threatened by urban sprawl and a growing population. If legal challenges fail, raising money to purchase the most valuable areas might turn out to be the last option remaining for groups that want to see them protected.
Photo credit: Bernt Rostad